Sarrounia Christianson, Content Designer, Home Office
Interview for Working With Words Event, hosted by UEA:
C: Thank you so much for doing this interview! I’d just like to start by asking you to introduce yourself and your role.
S: My name is Sarrounia, everyone calls me Ounie! I am a content designer at the Home Office, so that means I write content for Gov.UK. Gov.UK is divided into different parts, it's quite difficult to tell from the outside, but I specifically work in services, so that means anything that allows somebody to do a thing - for example apply for a passport, apply for benefits, and I also work on the portfolio that helps EU migrants apply for settled status. I’ve been a content designer for 18 months now!
C: That’s great - it’s lovely to spend a Monday evening with you. How did you get into content design, is this something you always wanted to pursue?
S: First I would just say - no! It wasn’t. I didn’t know what it was, I’d never heard of it, most people haven’t. A lot of people think I make videos! It’s a weird kind of quirk of government where it’s got that name within government, whereas outside if you were to work in a private digital agency, you would be known as a UX Writer - a User Experience Writer. So after university, I actually worked in publishing for five years, and I used to work in translation rights. I worked in an academic publishing house and a literary agency as well. I’m still in touch with a lot of colleagues from publishing; I absolutely loved publishing, and I would definitely recommend it as an industry to get into! The reason why I no longer work in publishing is because the company that I worked for they were going through a lot of changes, and it was getting more and more difficult to do what I loved, I was having to wade through a bit of bureaucracy...and my partner asked me if I wanted to go travelling! When I came back, I was looking to do something directly writing, because I’d always written my own blog, written freelance whilst I was travelling, so when I got back I kind of just wanted to stay writing. And Gov.UK have a career development programme, and it said content designer, and thats how I started doing it!
C: That’s really interesting - were there any important skills from your degree that you took with you into this role?
S: I would say that crafting words is one, as you do so much writing! I studied English Literature, one of my favourite modules was creative writing, or the journalism modules. Although what I do now is completely different to writing essays, sometimes I need to think about whether one word or another word looks better on a button, or whether changing a bullet point will make a difference to the user experience! I still think that having a really critical eye about words is really, really important, to be able to take feedback and implement that as well. Definitely there are other, softer skills, like self-organisation, working to a deadline, prioritisation - that kind of thing is super important. If I couldn’t do any of those things, I wouldn’t be a good content designer. I could be great with words, but if I can’t organise what I’m doing, then it would be pointless. I think people really don’t think about that when they’re at uni, but they’ve got so many of those skills. They’re really important - for any kind of job!
C: Could you just take us through what your typical work day looks like, what are your main responsibilities?
S: That’s really difficult! Because it changes every day. So on a project I’m the only content designer, I work with an interaction designer who is similar to a graphic designer and they decide what the page looks like, and we have a user researcher who whenever we design something they go and they talk to users about what we’ve designed, and users give feedback and we will change the content based on what they said. So there’s really direct feedback about your work! So we kind of work in interactions - loops of feedback, so it depends where I’m at in that loop. Recently, we have some research coming up on Wednesday so I was making sure the designs are ready, making sure the content looks good. What I would do on a Monday, probably, is check my calendar for the week to check if I have any meetings so I know what’s going on, usually I try to compartmentalise each day - particularly in this lockdown! - just so I can concentrate on specific things. I put hour blocks down, and usually for content I need to get my head down - I don’t really want to be interrupted - when you block out your calendar people know that you’re busy. So I work on quite a lot of rapidly changing project work, with lots of little bits to keep track of. Usually in a day, I’ll meet with my team members, or we have a lot of chat channels that we use, but I’m always in contact with team members, so we can talk about whats happening on the project next. Sometimes we have meetings with other stakeholders, so they will be people that also have a vested interest in what we’re doing, or other teams across the home office. Every day is different!
C: It sounds exciting! Would you say you have a part of your day which is your favourite?
S: I do think if I’ve given over my time to those different compartments that I said, and I’ve not been distracted, I always feel pretty good that I’ve managed to achieve that. But something that I really like is when you’ve been plugging away at a project for ages, and you’ve told everybody its this great idea and then it finally gets published on Gov.UK! I’ve had a piece of work that I was working on last year, which was really difficult, and I was just really trying to persuade them that we need to change the content, it doesn’t make sense, and they were like “no, it makes sense because it's legal!”, but if users don’t understand it then they can’t follow along. One of the things that is really important in content design is plain English, that’s a real difference between my work at uni and what I do now. I could be writing for a 12 year old, I could be writing for somebody’s grandma, I need to be writing for people with English as a second language - so I need to be using plain English, using words that anybody can understand. That’s not dumbing down at all, just making things which can be quite difficult more accessible. Accessibility is really, really important.
C: You love to champion women and minorities to get into digital - I’d like to ask specifically about advice you have for women and minorities when applying for this role?
S: Women and Minorities are hugely underrepresented in digital. In the creative industries, yes, but even more so in digital and creative, which is what I do. It must be about the paths into those roles, I would just say that to work in digital - you don’t need to be techy! I think that would be my first thing. I’m not techy at all, I didn’t know anything about coding or HTML - I know a tiny bit now, but I’m not a web developer! And web developers should be able to explain what they’re doing for you in plain english. So a lot of the time, when I’m in a project meeting, people are talking in acronyms and I have no idea what they’re talking about - so I have to ask “what did you mean by that?”. Ask questions! I wouldn’t assume that everyone has this level of knowledge that you don’t have, everybody started from somewhere. Also find out about the type of roles that are out there - I’d never heard of content design and now it’s my job! And don’t undersell yourself! Anything you’ve done at uni is applicable, just feel the fear and do it anyway! Just apply anyway. My first job in publishing I couldn’t read the whole job description because I couldn’t pay for the paid platform it was advertised on, so I just saw the first paragraph, and I still applied. Also, something I would say is, there are people out there - so myself, I’m a woman, I’m a minority - reach out to people on LinkedIn. I’ve had people say to me they’re going to apply for the development scheme, they’ve asked me for tips on LinkedIn. They’re happy to help you!
C: What words of advice do you have for graduates who know they want to be involved with words, but not necessarily the exact role or area?
S: I think for graduates, this is quite an overwhelming situation. I remember being in that position, and I don’t like unknowns, so for me it was really terrifying to not know what I wanted to do. I love books, I love reading, I love literature, but that was all I knew! Then I left uni and I was like...now what?! Even though I went to a lot of career events, I still didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do. So my advice would be don’t rush, it’s not a race, you don’t need to find something now - it doesn’t mean you failed if you haven’t found something as soon as possible! Try different things, you’ve got lots of time. Before I got a job in publishing, I got a job at a charity; it was working with young people to create a magazine, and it was a tiny charity but it gave me those project management skills, working with words, I got to work with young people and that got something else on my CV so when I decided to focus on publishing it gave me that breathing space to think about what I really liked. I found it very scary not knowing what to do, and I think it’s okay just to take your time. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself!
C: Especially in this climate! Would you say there was anything specific you did at university that allowed you to get into your career?
S: I was involved with Concrete - UEA’s newspaper, it wasn’t a massive role I just used to do reviews so I went to the cinema for free! Mainly I was on the Women's Basketball Team, so I was secretary and then President and, in terms of organisation, we used to have so much training and so many games - it’s really a lot! I must have devoted so much of my time to that. It was really great because its that team environment which I love working in, and I think that’s what I love about my work now - I love my team, and working with them, and thats what makes it really great! Having those softer skills like being able to work in a team, being able to organise stuff, besides whatever you’re learning in your study - which I wouldn’t discount either! Even if you study philosophy and you want to work with words, you’ve still got your critical thinking and all that kind of thing that’s still useful. For part-time work I used to work in the shop on campus, so I worked there for two and a half years, and I think fitting that alongside basketball and study, all of that together gives you an idea of how to arrange your life. Also, the basketball I met some of my best friends through doing that - and I was part of the afro-caribbean society, so its really important to meet people through different ways!
C: What would be your tips around writing a great cover letter for your industry?
S: So my tip, which would probably apply to all industries, but the thing which I feel is the most important thing is reflecting exactly what they’ve asked for in the job description. People can tell straight away if you didn’t read it, or its not tailored at all, even if you feel like some of your examples are a bit tenuous and you haven’t done something which fits exactly, just show that you’ve read the description and understood what they were asking for. Even if you’re saying you really want to learn about this, thats okay as well.
C:Great! We’re skirting around mention of the pandemic here, but is there anything you would suggest that students and graduates take this free time to help with job prospects?
S: One of the things about the Home Office, and the civil service in general, is that they keep encouraging you to develop yourselves. Although I’m a midweight content designer now, I was a junior content designer for six months, and during that time you get one day a week which you get off to study - they give you access to courses and stuff like that, so I’m always looking around for the latest things in content design to study. I think I’m always learning, and thats one thing that I would say is really good about working in the Civil Service is that theres space for you to do that. Things that I would recommend is a company called General Assembly, they’re really well known in the area of User Experience design, they do loads of courses, so they usually have courses at their London headquarters, but now everything is online! They’re doing this thing called Free Fridays, they’re two hour seminars on really specific topics on anything from careers to marketing, branding, coding, I’m going to do a UX one. So theres really good introductory ones, and then theres more indepth ones. Usually to do their courses its really expensive - so definitely take advantage of it! Also theres a great platform called FutureLearn, I think its run by the Open University but loads of different course providers put courses on there. THeres a specific course on there which I wanted to recommend which is run by GDS, which is the government digital service, so they started Gov.UK, so how it works is that all the main pages are run by the Government Digital Service, and then all the departments like the Home Office, Department for Work and Pensions, all the other departments they have their own pages which sit behind that. So GDS are very well known in the UX industry, and they run a lot of really great courses. They’re running a course in May which is an Introduction to Content Design, so its for if you don’t know anything about content design! FutureLearn is great.
C: So you’ve just received a promotion - is that right? Congratulations! Following on from that, where do you see yourself in the next five years in terms of progression in your role?
S: So the Civil Service is a bit weird, in that I interview for my promotion! So I had to go through the process of being interviewed by three people I already know - which is really terrifying! So in terms of progression, so now I’m a midweigh content designer, it gives me a lot of opportunities to continue within government, or outside. So I want to make sure I have a really good grounding, so I intend to stay in this role for a while, 2 or 3 years, and I would like to try working in an agency environment, as although it’s really good to have a specialism, but it would stretch my skills differently to work in an agency. I think in terms of content design, I’ve found what I really love - so I’m happy to stay with it! I don’t think I would want to intern again - it was good, don’t get me wrong! - but I think doing that for a third time would terrify me a bit. I think content design combines a lot of things I like doing: helping people, working with words, working on challenging projects.
C: Finally, is there anything you’re reading currently that you would recommend?
S; I really, really like non-fiction, which is a bit weird having studied literature, but I think because I read so much literature at uni, now I read fiction, non-fiction, fiction - I always do that. I’m lucky that my partner - we met in publishing - and he still works in publishing! We get loads of free books, as he works in the production department, and so he has to check all the proofs - so they used to be sent to the office, but now they’re all here! So for non-fiction, I read a really great book called Money: a users guide, its this really cute book which is accessible, easily written about quite complicated financial issues - some which I haven’t even thought of. It sounds boring, but its really interesting! A fiction one, the last book I read was called The Correspondence, and it was an amazing epic. It was such a page-turner!
C: Thank you so much!