It all started with a recession. I had an English degree but graduate jobs were thin on the ground (and I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do anyway). My father was fed up with seeing me mope around the house, so arm-twisted a pal to take me on at a local paper.
My initial enthusiasm turned to dread when I arrived on the first day. Instead of making me editor, I was told to visit local businesses and convince them to part with money. I was selling advertising space. In a recession.
I felt aggrieved that my talents were going to waste, so hatched a plan. Instead of talking about quarter page display ads, I’d probe my clients about what they’d seen happening in the area, such as crimes and get them to reveal hot local issues. Then I’d write up my stories and badger the editor to publish them. I guess the lesson learnt was that "persistence pays off". In a few months I became a cub reporter and my true working life began.
An opportunity I couldn’t refuse
Several years later I was out of a job again and had a call from a friend working at an advertising agency who asked me if I knew about the Victorian inventor Charles Babbage. “Isn’t he the inventor of the computer?”, I asked, vaguely remembering a trip to the Science Museum and marvelling at his steam powered machines.
Next thing I know I’m travelling to far flung places to interview his descendants and beg them for artefacts for a permanent exhibition dedicated to Babbage, sponsored by a computer company.
On the day of the launch, champagne is flowing, all the company’s big wigs are there, and I ‘accidentally’ bump into the boss of the agency. He looks at me quizzically and asks if I’m the researcher who put the exhibition together. “How do you feel about becoming a copywriter?”, he asks.
I’m too stumped (and broke) to say no, and my career in advertising begins, although this time I’m writing the words on the adverts, not trying (hopelessly) to sell them.
Nagging doubts in advertising
I had enormous fun and satisfaction working in the ad business (and spells in design and branding), but had some persistent doubts that wouldn’t go away.
When told about our target customers, the client would share a piece or two of market research, but it was typically paid for by the company, so I was never sure if they had asked the right questions of the right audience. It seemed to me they were looking to justify their marketing strategy, so the results were ‘skewed’ to please the CEO.
People were often paid to give their opinions, so how could we be sure they weren’t making things up to make the researchers happy? And clients often had ‘hunches’ about their buyers, which usually meant they would choose the ad they liked the best (“It looks nicer in purple”), not the one that answered a genuine user need.
Writing took a strange turn
And then along came the internet and everything was turned upside down. Instead of coming up with a single idea, I was being asked to generate endless messages to micro-target different audiences. That may sound sensible, but in truth writing became a factory production line. I was pumping out stuff with no time to think.
And I’d had enough. As luck would have it, an opportunity popped up for a writer to help the Metropolitan Police. With so many police stations closing down and fewer bobbies on the beat, Londoners were flooding the 999 emergency service with calls to report everything from a cat stuck up a tree to a car parked across their driveway. Genuine emergency calls were being dangerously held up in the queue.
My eureka moment
The idea was to create a virtual police station, a range of online services that help people report incidents such as road accidents, antisocial behaviour, and hate crimes, using their phone or other device.
Working in two week sprints, my team used service design principles to map out each stage of the journey, starting with a series of relevant yes/no questions to direct the person to the right form, with information along the way to guide them. Language had to be clear and unambiguous, free of police jargon.
The experience was a revelation. For the first time, I really felt I was seeing what users needed through their eyes. During the discovery phase, I listened in to 999 calls to hear what people talked about and learn about their expectations.
When we built a prototype, it was shaped around their needs, not what we assumed they wanted. When we tested it, we used Londoners who had previously reported incidents using the phone or another method so they could compare the online experience to the way they’d done it before. As I watched their reactions behind a one way mirror, I gained priceless insights that helped us improve the second prototype. Another round of insights helped us build the final product. It was then I knew I wanted to be a content designer.
Start (and finish) with user needs
Content designers use these techniques and others (along with their highly skilled teammates in user centred design) to build things that people really need and want to use. That’s what brought me to Parliament. I’m a passionate believer in the power of what we do. It’s not good enough to say, "If we build it, they will come," (to paraphrase Field of Dreams).
If we don’t understand who uses our website or our services or what they need from us, we can’t build the right thing. The journey from cub reporter to Parliament has been a long one (and far from straight), but I feel we owe it to all our citizens to deliver content to them based on their needs, not our assumptions.
Read more posts on the career paths of PDS staff.