Evidence-based content strategy and design

There is a lot of talk about evidence-based design these days. A quick search for evidence-based design, or EBD, returns results mostly focused on health care and the construction industry. Both of these professions have a vested interest in developing an empirical understanding of how people interact with their environments so that their practices can improve the effectiveness of project outcomes.

In healthcare, this means improving patient and staff well-being, patient healing, stress reduction, and safety.

In construction, the goal of evidence-based design is to improve the performance of buildings, and not only looks at ways that people interact with the built environment, but also how the various components of buildings interact as a complex system.


Evidence-based design method – Wikipedia

Evidence-Based Design Journal

Evidence-based design in digital services

In the realm of interactive digital services, the term evidence-design has crept in, largely unheralded. The benefits are seen as credibility.

Evidence-based design bases decisions on research, both user and scholarly, and increases the likelihood of effectiveness and ultimately success. Human Factors International, a consultancy known for its scholarly contributions and its accreditation program, describes the process as:

  • clarify the question being asked regarding UX methods or design
  • identify sources of research or best practice to help answer the question
  • find available research or best practice
  • review for credibility and applicability
  • check to see if other research or practice has come to the same conclusions
  • save copies of the materials along with links or citations for future reference
  • communicate and apply what you have learned


Evidence-Based Best Practices and Research – Human Factors International

Evidence-based content strategy and design

The more research we do into evidence-based design, the more that Scroll can attest that all along, it has been using an evidence-based design approach to content strategy and content design.

The methodologies are quite similar.

Evidence-based content strategy

Content strategy recognises that an organisation is a complex system, where various components interact to optimise content performance. A successful project outcome requires foresight and planning.

The discovery phase of a content strategy involves making a diagnosis, and then finding the right prescription.

The steps are:

  1. Clarify the organisational problem that content is being asked to solve.
  2. Research the content requirements of the organisation, the content consumers, the content developers, the technologies used to manage content, and the content itself.
  3. Conduct a gap analysis by looking at the difference between the current state and the ideal state.
  4. Determine the gaps that have prevented the organisation from reaching their ideal future state.
  5. Research content lifecycles, and identify best practices for the context.
  6. Map out a high-level solution and validate for feasibility and applicability.
  7. Communicate findings and get buy-in to proceed with implementation.

Once there is organisational clarity and agreement around the roadmap to a solution, the evidence-based content design process takes over.

Evidence-based content design

Once the big-picture goals have been established, the implementation phase begins. This is where content design comes in.

The content has to work from an editorial perspective, a user experience perspective, a comprehension perspective, and a technical perspective before it’s fit-for-purpose. That doesn’t happen by accident:

  1. Use evidence from analytics, user research and elsewhere to clarify the problem the content is being asked to solve (the user need).
  2. Research the requirements that allow the content to make the user of the content successful at their tasks (the acceptance criteria).
  3. Find the best practices for developing and delivering content in that context.
  4. Validate for credibility and applicability.
  5. Communicate findings and create the content.

Qualifying this approach as evidence-based design

Developing content and content systems is subject to the same rigour that goes into designing a healthcare environment or a building envelope that improves the performance of a complex system.

There is no room for opinions and conjecture.

An organisation must know they have a better system than before, and that their new system delivers better-performing content than before. They must be able to demonstrate this with data.

In content design, this is done through an empirical understanding of how people interact with content, combined with deep domain knowledge of editorial processes, learning theory, comprehension techniques, information architecture, and content development theories and practices. Once the content is live its performance can be measured using various metrics from web analytics, as well as through direct feedback from users.

In content strategy, this is done through a knowledge of content design combined with an understanding of the various ecosystems used for content development, management, and delivery.

In both disciplines, the experts at Scroll have a keen understanding of using content as a business asset to further organisational goals.

4 replies
  1. Fran
    Fran says:

    I’m currently devising a social content strategy and feel very lucky to have a lot of existing social engagement and conversations to draw on. This, together with research, surveys and customer feedback, is really helping to shape a content that will bring about conversations and conversions.

    Using evidence and engagement is the only way.

  2. Rahel
    Rahel says:

    Exactly, Fran. Evidence-based content strategy can apply to the overall content strategy, and to all of the substrategies within the discipline – social media, search, content marketing, and so on.

  3. Che Tamahori
    Che Tamahori says:

    Hi Rahel

    I think there’s a difficulty in calling what you’re describing Evidence Based Design (EBD).

    You’re definitely describing a User Centred Design process, with plenty of primary research, and data-driven mechanisms for evaluating success. As described it is very sound — even best — practice.

    It uses evidence — evidence you yourself are collecting — to support decision making. Unfortunately, that doesn’t make it EDB.

    EBD implies initial research that leverages OTHER parties’ previously published, rigorous research. In this way, we are able to “stand on the shoulders of giants”, and move our practice forward as a community, while ensuring improved outcomes over time.

    But in content strategy and experience design, there is a lack of such resources. From where can I find peer reviewed, transparent studies that can inform my decision making? Where can I find the Content Strategy equivalent of the Centre for Health Design? (www.healthdesign.org)

    Only when such clearing houses for resources are widely available can we practice EBD.

  4. Rahel Bailie
    Rahel Bailie says:

    Che, I can interpret your comment in a couple of ways, so I’m going to do my best to answer what I think your comments are addressing.

    When you are looking for “peer reviewed, transparent studies that can inform my decision making”, that will be very difficult to find. There is no academic journal on content strategy, per se, so you need to look for such case studies that are included in “special issues” of other journals. (For example, I have a peer-reviewed article being published soon in the IEEE PCS, but it does not have the term “content strategy” in the title.) Industry is very tight-lipped when it comes to content strategy. Once they realise that the results of their content strategy results in a competitive advantage, they are reluctant to make that knowledge public.

    In a general way, the Content Strategy Alliance has made available a number of tools to assist content strategists in their methodology. Many senior-level, experienced practitioners are part of the Alliance, and have contributed their own intellectual property.

    I suspect this is about as close as we will come to the type of evidence-based design you’re hoping for.


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