Designing the Census 2021 dictionary: a content designer’s story

Lessons from designing the Census 2021 dictionary and the benefits of working with a content designer at the start of projects.

Over the last two years working as a senior content designer at the ONS, I’ve worked on a number of Census 2021 projects. One of those projects was the Census 2021 dictionary. The dictionary provides detailed information such as definitions and lists of topics and categories used in Census 2021 data. It is important when making policy decisions or lobbying for change to use data accurately; the dictionary helps people working on analysis and research to do this. 

This post explains: 

  • benefits of involving content designers at the start of projects 
  • lessons learnt from designing the dictionary 
  • how users are using the dictionary 
  • it’s not just about the words

Benefits of involving content designers at the start of projects

Content designers will always start with users. We work with user researchers, performance analysts and Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) experts to understand who the users are and what they need for each project.

I often describe the Census 2021 project as one big jigsaw puzzle. As content designers we enjoy getting into the nitty gritty details about content and ask lots of questions to piece it together. But we also look at things from a high level and work out where each piece of the puzzle fits within a user journey. It is these skills that make us good problem solvers and spot gaps where user needs are not being met. The Census 2021 dictionary work is an example where these skills came in very handy.

Working with the dictionary team at the start of the project meant I could:

  • advise other disciplines about content gaps in the wider census journey
  • work with user researchers to validate user needs around content gaps
  • work with experts in other disciplines to get feedback on my sketches outlining where different pieces of content would go on different pages, called “wireframes”
  • design templates, content and content patterns based on insights, using words that users use
  • make sure all content were based on user needs

What I learnt from designing the dictionary

  • Keep referring to users and their needs to keep work user-centred. 
  • Work together to solve problems with the right experts as one team is a more efficient way of working. 
  • Chunk up tasks into smaller pieces so you can focus on each task to avoid feeling overwhelmed by larger tasks. 
  • Keep gathering user feedback and make improvements as you go along. 

How users are using the dictionary

Since its first publication the dictionary team have been using Hotjar surveys and other insights to get feedback from users to make further improvements. 

One person told us: “The information was just right, and will use it in policy making and engagement activity for a council.” 

Another person told us that they have used it to help produce reports as part of funding applications. 

It’s not just about the words

Working on this project with a team of experts from a wide range of disciplines was fantastic. Everyone brought their skills and knowledge together, which led to a better user-centred product.

Being the only content designer working on the dictionary meant I shared and showed how content design is more than just words. Those who had not worked with a content designer before fed back that they learnt so much and that they would use what they learnt in their own work. When you get feedback like that you know your work on that project is done and the time is right to pass the baton onto someone else and move onto your next content design challenge.

See more of the Census 2021 dictionary

You can find the definitions, variables and classifications used in Census 2021 data on the ONS website.