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Content design: planning, writing, and managing content

4 minutes to read | Last updated January 11, 2021

Best practices to plan, create, and manage digital content that is accessible, usable, and meet the needs of your audience at UW-Madison.

These steps and methods can help create online experiences that are easier to understand.

Elements of content design

What is content design?

An introduction to the who, what, when, where and why of your online content.

User needs

How to develop user needs and why they are important to your content.

User research and evidence

How to figure out what your users need, and how to develop evidence to support your content design decisions.

Planning content

How to decide what is useful, the content lifecycle, and why accessibility must be planned for.

Writing content

How to write and format content that everyone can use.

Adapting your own content style guide

If you develop your own style guide, it should still adhere to UW-Madison’s core brand principles.

Content maintenance

Part of the content lifecycle including when it might be time to make an update.

Data and analytics

How to use data to make content decisions, and ways to determine whether your content is working.

Links and Calls To Action

How to add links to content and make them clear and accessible.


How to choose and describe images, use alt text, produce accessible graphs, diagrams and infographics, and copyright rules.


When to use tables and how to make them accessible.

What is content design?

An introduction to the who, what, when, where and why of your online content.

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What is content design?

Good content design allows people to do or find out what they need simply and quickly using the most appropriate content format available.

Our university has a tendency to publish content that is more focused on who created the content, or what it wants to say, rather than what the user needs to know. This makes content difficult to understand and act upon.

This can result in frustrated users (students, faculty, staff, collaborators, those outside of UW) who cannot find the information they need or complete the tasks they are looking for. We can avoid this by basing what we publish on research into user behavior and what users actually need.

Content design always starts with user needs

When we talk about content design we mean taking a user need and presenting it in the best way possible.

A user need is something that a user will need to do or find out and can include:

  • Who to contact with a question
  • What classes/programs are available
  • What events are happening and how to participate
  • How to access and login to a UW-Madison service
  • How to apply, find out how much classes costs, or how to pay tuition
  • How to find open hours for a facility

There are a lot of content formats and tools across UW-Madison, all developed in response to the specific needs of different types of users. There can sometimes be more than one way to present content and the decisions have to be made carefully.

Before publishing, you need to know your users’ needs and design your content around them. For more detail on how to do this, read the section on user needs.

Content strategy and design

Depending on what your user needs are, you may need to:

  • reduce the amount of content you plan to publish
  • split one big piece of content into smaller pieces
  • change the format of the content
  • label items in a way that is findable
  • organize content in a way that reflects your user needs
  • publish your content elsewhere, like a blog, partner site or social media

You’ll need to consider all of this when planning your content. If you need content design advice, you can contact the Center For User Experience.

Designing by writing great content

Writing great content clearly, in plain language, and optimized for the web helps people understand and find the information they need quickly and easily. This guidance is based on research about how people use the internet. It shows how to write great content.

As a university, we must write so that UW-Madison is accessible to anybody who is interested enough to look. Our users have different reading abilities and use a range of devices. Read how to design accessible content before you start.

Content design also involves making sure content can be easily found on a site with many content items.

Designing to avoid duplication

Duplicate content produces poor search results, confuses the user and damages the credibility of UW-Madison as a brand. Users end up frustrated, and need to continue searching, or contacting the university because they are not sure they have all the information or the right information.

Content maintenance

Good content design practice ensures that content stays accurate, relevant, current and optimized both for users and search engines. When content is no longer accurate or useful it needs to be withdrawn. The section on content maintenance looks at how to maintain and review content.

Simple, clearer, faster

Applying all of these content design principles mean we do the hard work for the user. But the reward is a site that is simpler, clearer and faster for both content creators, and the students, faculty and staff that use the content.