Posts

How to do content crits well

Content crits are an excellent way to improve your work, share good practice and establish standards in a team. Other than 2i (second pair of eyes), crits are probably the single best thing you can do for your content.

What is a content crit?

A content crit (content critique) is when a content designer shows some work in progress and asks for specific feedback. It’s a chance to:

  • review your work
  • come up with different options
  • share ideas
  • explain decisions to a wider team
  • get help when you’re stuck on something

The idea comes from design critiques.

How to run a content crit

The mechanics of running a content crit are best kept as simple as possible. That’s so that you can set up and run crits quickly and easily.

All you need is:

  • a piece of work in progress to show – on a screen, or as printouts on the wall
  • a group of people to take a critical look at the content
  • someone to take notes
  • you, to explain what you want from the crit, give some context and keep the discussion focussed

Anyone can do this. However, there are a couple of ways to get as much as possible out of a crit.

What content can you crit?

Any content will benefit from a crit, as long as it’s a work in progress. Showing your work at all stages helps you work in the open. It makes things better. Show your work as often as you need to. Crit early, crit often.

If you’re working on a service, rather than on (eg) guidance content, there’s a bit of an arbitrary distinction between a content crit and a broader design crit. It’s quite hard to focus specifically on content when it’s so intrinsically bound up with the interaction design.

But I’ve always found value in a long hard look at the words alone. It’s particularly good way of spotting inconsistencies and finding emerging content patterns.

Have a clear idea of what you want from your crit – set the scene and give context

Crits are at their most useful when you have a clear idea what you want to get out of them. You need to be able to tell people what you want feedback on.

This could mean asking people to:

  • focus on or ignore certain sections of the work
  • look at specific phrasing, or solve a specific problem
  • review a particular aspect of the work
  • review in the light of their own user research

You also need to set the scene – give people some context. That might mean talking about the users, the user needs, any constraints or assumptions you have made, how advanced the work is, or how you have iterated based on user research.

Keep bringing the focus back to what you want. This is important. Crits get off-track easily. If the discussion shows you need to focus on something else, make a note to come back to it after the crit.

Get the right people in the room

Another good reason to know what you want from a crit is to make sure you get the right people in the room – no point having policy folks if you’re only reviewing for style.

But you definitely don’t need to restrict content crits to content people. You’ll get an excellent range of feedback and ideas if you invite your wider team – subject matter experts, product managers, user researchers, designers and developers. Crits have great silo-busting power.

Opening up the crit means that you can improve collaboration, explain design decisions and build a shared understanding. It’s a good way of helping non-designers understand what we do when we do user-centred design.

Content designers at Scope do multi-disciplinary crits really well.

How to behave at a crit

“Regardless of what we discover, we understand and truly believe that everyone did the best job they could, given what they knew at the time, their skills and abilities, the resources available, and the situation at hand.”

-Norm Kerth, Project Retrospectives: A Handbook for Team Review

Norm really sets the scene there. Positive, helpful crit culture is where people are kind, supportive and unafraid to express a viewpoint. The old gamer meme, ‘Don’t be a dick’, sums it up too. If someone consistently breaks that rule, they should not be at your crit.

If you are bringing your work to a crit:

  • don’t be defensive – you’re asking for help and constructive criticism, accept it when it’s given
  • keep people on-track – crit time is precious, use it wisely
  • ask lots of questions about people’s suggestions

If you are invited to crit someone’s work:

  • speak up – someone’s asked for constructive criticism, so offer it
  • don’t make it personal – don’t talk about ‘you’ (‘Why have you done X?’)
  • keep it neutral – ‘Does X meet the user need?’ or ‘I wondered if Y might work’
  • call out the positives as well as the negatives
  • ask for clarification if you need it – ‘What was the thinking behind the decision to X’?

Sarah Richards writes really well about the rules of the crit.

A few useful lines

To set the scene:
“Here’s what we want to look at today – x, y and z. Feedback on a, b and c can wait until next week.”

When someone is giving feedback on something you don’t want to focus on:
“I hear you on that. Now, what do you think about x?”

When you think it’s time to end the crit:
“Thank you all for your feedback. I’ve got what I need for now, and will go and work on the next iteration.”

Latest news in content: autumn 2018

A round-up of the best advice, thinking, tools and news in content. This has all appeared in the fortnightly Scroll newsletter. (Sign up on the right, never miss out again…)

Practical tips and how-tos

Use words at the start of the design process
How to use the right level of content in different stages of design. Also: “We never use lorem ipsum at any stage of the design process.”

Content design techniques
Using ‘just in time’ content and setting user expectations, with really good examples.

Create good HR content
Human resources content is often low-quality, boring, jargon-ridden and generally incomprehensible. Let’s fix it!

User research is a team sport
How to work with user researchers. Really good read by a guru in the field.

News, thought pieces, advice

Plain English – new research
Actual research (rare) about the effects of using plain English in legal writing. Excellent ammunition for your next chat with the legal team. (Unfortunately, you’ll need to follow a few links and then download a PDF – sorry!)

What’s ContentOps?
Explains how a ‘content operations’ (#ContentOps) practice could work. Quote: “This is low-level, tactical, operational work that needs to be done on content to…well, make it go.”

Tools

A user research library
Hackney Council’s brilliant library for gathering and sharing user research.

Content models will change your life
Trying to figure out how to tailor lots of content to meet user need? Don’t have hundreds of editors to update pages manually? You need content models.

And finally…

Font geeks – try this
Can you tell which is Helvetica and which Arial? Fiendishly tricky.

What’s in a professional name – part 2 of 3 about content roles and skills

What’s in a professional name

In this 4-part series, Rahel Bailie explores and maps the various roles, skills and job titles in content today. Rahel is a renowned content strategist and part of Scroll’s management team.

Does it matter what a content person is called, as long as they get the job done? In the first part of this series, we asked how a person is supposed to make sense of the content landscape. When practitioners can’t even agree on terminology, it’s not surprising that trying to hire staff or contractors, or even commission work, can cause confusion. And looking for a good fit for a job or contract is even harder when companies create a job description for, say, a content marketer, and then put a content strategy title on the job ad. Everyone gets frustrated.

Content job titles are not standardised

One senior manager at a large agency said that she needs to see about 80 CVs before she finds a content strategist who has the skillset she feels should be standard for that role. It’s not that candidates are purposefully trying to inflate their CVs. Content is not a regulated profession, where job titles are attached to specific roles: a paediatrician, a corporate tax lawyer, or an electrical engineer. It does not have a guiding body that standardises practices, methods, and deliveries, such as the Project Management Institute or International Institute of Business Analysis, where you know what to expect when you ask for a PRINCE2 or Agile certification. Content is usually not even a category in professional lists. Content professionals need to shoehorn themselves into categories like ‘Technology’, ‘Consulting’, or the catch-all ‘Advertising, Editorial and Management’.

Job titles differ globally

When I joined Scroll, I struggled to understand how the role of a copywriter differed from a digital content manager. Or how a content designer differed from a technical communicator. For example, in North America, the Society for Technical Communication defined technical writing as “simplifying the complex. Inherent in such a concise and deceptively simple definition is a whole range of skills and characteristics that address nearly every field of human endeavour at some level.”

Technical communicators became synonymous with writers who wrote user-facing content (customers, administrative users, or technical users) for software or hardware, but in reality, they write any informational or enabling content for any audience. I’ve met technical communicators who write everything from consumer instructions, user guides, recipes, medical procedures, and policies and procedures, to documentation for APIs, engineering specifications, and technical marketing datasheets.

In the UK, technical authors seem to occupy a much more niche area. A technical writer used to mean, in North American parlance, a science writer: someone who had some domain knowledge and wrote technical content in that domain. But that’s changing. Now, technical authors are more likely to be called technical writers or technical communicators. The remit is more content development, where writing is a small part of the process that begins with user research and ends with user-centered content. In the UK, they are the communicators brought in to develop technical content for technical audiences. They often use specialised authoring software that allows them to create output at great scale.

Guidance writers, technical writers, content designers…

In the UK, writing instructions for non-technical audiences is done by guidance writers, a designation I’d never heard outside of the UK. After some deductive reasoning, I determined that guidance is a combination of informational and instructional content – it ‘guides’ users to complete a task or understand information. Yet, a search for guidance writing seems to point to documents such as standard operating procedures, user guides, and so on.

So far, so good. Now let’s add content designers into the mix. Some searches for guidance writers points to content designers. The differences between a content designer and technical communicators or guidance writers are subtle and also not codified. So, is a content designer the same as a guidance writer the same as a technical communicator? Seems to be, but not so fast.

The UK government hires technical writers to write technical content for technical audiences – for example, API documentation for developers on their digital teams. There is no mention of the use of specialised software, though in my books, any technical writer worth their salt knows their way around a help authoring tool, even if they’re not provided access to that software in their job. There is also no mention of the methodology, which has multiple aspects, spelled out in the Technical Communication Body of Knowledge (TCBOK) for Technical Communicators.

The UK government has a very clear definition of a content designer, which I’ve described as a writer focused on ‘the UX of content’. There is a prescribed process that starts with user research, evidence-based decisions, and an outcome of user-centered content based on that research. Because of the clarity around the designation, it’s not surprising that industry is asking for “content designers with GDS experience”. There is a certain comfort level in knowing what is expected, both in terms of method and outputs.

To some professionals in the content industry, the content design process seems self-evident: every writer does that, right? After all, the expectations of a content designer is also part of the TCBOK, with a slightly different vocabulary and more variants to the methods. But to others, there is a world of difference, in which copywriters are given the mandate to “just write X” whereas content designers are expected to question whether content X is even needed in the first place before starting to write (or rewrite), and then deliver the content in a new way, if warranted. A content designer might request that a tool be created (what used to be called a wizard and more recently, an assistant) to deliver the content in a more user-centered way, as do technical communicators.

A rich professional landscape

Once we fill out this cluster of professions with some of the other common designations we encounter in our field, we end up with a rich, though sometimes confusing, professional landscape. Given the breadth and variety of the naming conventions and practices across the content field, how can we navigate this complicated landscape? How do we know whether we’re rejecting a perfectly qualified candidate because of a difference in vocabulary? In the next installment of the Summer of Content, I take a crack at creating a graphic representation of the various designations that content people wear. Fair warning, though: I’m a word nerd, so my graphic skills are limited.  I’ll map out some of the more popular names on a basic grid with liberal annotation.

Read the rest of the series

UX writing and content design – a few tricks of the trade

I’ve been working on my portfolio website recently — trying to distil large projects into succinct case studies. In a way it’s been a test of good content design in itself!

Something I realised when I was getting this stuff down on paper was there are a few things I tend to do consistently when working on projects, be it a new app or service, or a large content-heavy website.

Leverage established norms

Before you create your controlled language and vocabulary for your project or site, research what’s already being used in the real world. Sounds obvious, but there can be a tendency to get your head down and start creating content straight away. And it’s good to give yourself a bit of time early on to research what’s out there.

I recently designed an online bank account feature for the Education and Skills Funding Agency. I tried to make the interface as intuitive as possible by researching online banking apps from major retail banks, then I modelled the site’s language on established norms.

Use whatever data you can get

It’s great to use established data sources such as Analytics navigation summaries and organic keyword search, Google trends, SEMrush, user research sessions and support centre data.

But if you don’t yet have this data, there’s a lot you can do to find the all-important vernacular language that your users actually use online.

Try searching online for discussion boards and message boards, join social media communities and groups. You could also read specialist news sites and blogs, read the comments sections, or go to community events and meet ups.

This way, you’ll really tap into the vocabulary of your users and get to grips with their concerns. This will also help make your content better for your users by making it easier to find and easier to understand.

Help users to orient themselves

Helping users orient themselves around a site or service is one of the perennial challenges of content design.

You can help users find their way around your site by including a ‘Next steps’ feature at the end of each transaction.

I did this recently at the UK’s Department for Education. I worked with the UX design lead to create a widget that could be dropped into the final page of each transaction on the site.

I then worked with our User researcher to create and send out a browser-based card sorting exercise to 200 users to identify the typical ‘next steps’ that users would like to do after each transaction.

Avoid saying ‘Back’

One thing that I’ve seen a lot is users getting stuck or confused during a transactional journey.

Transactional journeys are typically linear, and are designed to allow users to submit data, make a payment, or do something else other than simply read information.

As soon as users lose confidence, their lifeline is the back button. But aimlessly clicking ‘Back’ can quickly turn what could’ve been a straight-forward step by step journey into a really messy experience.

To prevent users from getting lost, try to label back buttons as precisely as you can. For example, ‘Previous page’ or ‘Start again’.

Users will occasionally want to retrace their steps, and it’s best to try orient them as much as you can.

Check ARIA tags

To assist users with impaired vision, you can use ARIA tags that allow you to provide additional text that will be read when someone is using a screenreader.

It’s a good idea to work with a front end developer to populate ARIA tags with your content, and made sure the code is structured so that language can be read using screenreaders as naturally as it could be read using the visual interface.

You can use Apple Voiceover or Vision Accessibility or other free screen readers to show you how screenreader will interpret your pages — use the Tab key to jump to each subsequent section of the site and make sure it is structured and ordered correctly.

Reduce cognitive load

If it’s inevitable that you expose lots of information on the interface, one thing I’ve found helpful is to reduce the effort users have to make to read content by using a consistent syntax to all messages (where possible).

For example, one format I used recently for about 100 different alert messages for a complex interface was:

{Date}: {Variable}{Verb past tense}
At {Time} by {Name} — Details

You can also reduce cognitive load on users by ‘chunking’ information up into bits.

I did this recently in an online bank account system that was used by a number of different user types that needed varying levels of detail. I chunked the financial information into a series of hierarchical levels — this meant users saw only the level of detail that they needed.

Avoid choice paralysis

Most people’s working memory is around 4 pieces of information, so you want to try keep below 4 pieces of information on any given page, especially when users are being presented with choices.

In a messaging system I developed at the UK’s Skills Funding Agency I helped avoid this ‘choice paralysis’ by only ever showing users 4 ‘alert’ messages at any given time. I choose to use an even number of options because an odd number of options tends to create a bias towards the ‘middle’ option of the list.

If you really want or need to present users with more information, you could try experiment with “choice tournaments” — something that Shlomo Benartzi refers to in his book The Smarter Screen.

He gives an example where a user is choosing between 16 different pairs of shoes on a shopping website. To avoid choice paralysis, you can show the user 4 options and let them pick one of the options, then repeat that 4 times. This way the user sees all 16 options, without being overwhelmed by too much choice.

Follow things up

One final thing that I think sometimes can get overlooked on fast-paced projects with tight deadlines is content maintenance.

It’s good practice to monitor how your content is performing by measuring page impressions and bounce rates, ongoing call centre data and email enquires.

If people still have questions and are calling you and emailing you — then you’ve got some gaps in your content.

If no one is reading your content — remove it!


Blog post by Pete Kowalczyk

 

 

Latest news in content: Summer 2017

A round-up of the best advice, thinking, tools and news in content. This has all appeared in the fortnightly Scroll newsletter. (Sign up on the right, never miss out again…) Enjoy your summer!

News, thought pieces, advice

Content and emotions
Rule #1 for emotion-driven content: never assume you know how your user is feeling. Rather, focus on what you can do for them.

Mailchimp wins again
This is still the best tone guide around. That’s partly because they have focused on content types, so people know where they can vary tone as well as how to vary tone. That means this is more actionable than most. Annoyingly good.

Required reading for accessibility
Excellent, detailed advice and tools to help you meet AA compliance for accessibility. Good on the balance between font size, colour and contrast.

Government is service design
A classic by @mattedgar. Expresses why anyone who works in government, not just in digital, needs to develop design thinking capability. Required reading.

Practical tips and ‘how-tos’

How to get hired – advice for contractors
Top advice on getting hired, from an expert. Hetty Meyric Hughes is the Scroll partner in charge of matching contractors with jobs.

Voice and tone tables
Nice, simple way to explain tone and voice. Conveys a lot of information in an easy format.

How to SEO your video content
Excellent best practice advice, updated for 2017.

Tools

Distraction-free writing app
Of the many distraction-free writing apps around, we like Focus Writer the best. Good for working when it’s sunny outside.

And finally…

The Cat in the Hat style guide
The Bank of England uses Dr Seuss to train staff in the art of clear writing.

 

Latest news in content: Spring 2017

A round-up of the best advice, thinking, tools and news in content. This has all appeared in the fortnightly Scroll newsletter. (Sign up on the right, never miss out again…)

News, thought pieces, advice

Structured content saves lives
US doctors had to use a huge reference book when they diagnosed cancer. This case study explains how a digital team turned that reference book into interoperable digital content, accessible via APIs. Amazing piece of work.

Q: What’s a ‘UX writer’?
A: The private sector name for a content designer.

Design patterns for trust and consent
Digital is losing people’s trust. We need to get better at this.

GOV.UK taxonomy in beta
This is a sea change in the way GOV.UK content is organised. We’d love your thoughts on this – tweet us @ScrollUK using #taxonomybeta.

Much smarter marketing
Quite a long read but rammed with fascinating stuff about how to get people’s attention, digitally.

Practical tips and ‘how-tos’

Get the bullets right
A satisfyingly detailed article about how to use bullet points effectively.

How to use a content model
A step-by-step walk through designing and using your own content model.

Writing for translation
By a Google content guru. This shows how much worse badly written content gets after it’s translated. (Trigger warning: may make you feel retrospective guilt if you’ve ever written anything that was translated into Thai.)

Design your own chatbot
Excellent 4-part series about using IA to design chatbots. It’s not an in-depth guide but it’ll give you a couple of ‘Aha!’ moments as you see traditional content strategy tools being deployed in chatbot world.

User research: small-ish is beautiful
Definitive answers to the perennial ‘how many people is enough?’ question for doing qualitative user research. (Hint: about 5.)

Tools

Community thesaurus
Folksonomy-style thesaurus. Lovely little tool if you’re lost for words.

And finally…

Fiendish UX quiz
Do you know your Pantone Colour of the Year from your therblings? Prove it here!

Lorem ipsum: why it’s the worst thing ever

I was in a user research session recently and it convinced me that ‘lorem ipsum’ should be outlawed.

User after user were flying through the screens we were testing until they hit upon a gobbledygook Latin brick wall. It was a part of the site that hadn’t yet been properly designed, but users didn’t know that, and it just freaked them out.

“I don’t understand this part,” said one user. “What does this say?” asked another.

Some users clicked back to see if there was something they had misunderstood on previous pages. It seemed to affect some users’ confidence in the entire product.

Why ipsum?

If only we’d had the foresight to use Slipsum (that’s Samuel L Jackson lorem ipsum) or Hipsum (random filler text for hipsters) — then everything would’ve been fine.

No! When testing an online product or service, there’s literally no use in using randomly generated text.

Testing a user interface (UI) without content is like testing a new TV without turning it on. You’re not going to learn anything.

Why does this continue to happen? Generally, it comes down to a lack of time.

In an ideal world, no content or UI would make it into production before it had been validated by users using prototypes. But that’s just not always realistic.

In agile teams, there are a lot of people working hard to develop a product and there’s a huge momentum towards delivery. There’s not always time to create well thought out content before certain parts of the product are seen by users.

What can you do?

As a content designer, I think you can gain insight by using the work other people have done.

For example, in the agile team I currently work in, our business analysts do an awful lot of work to figure out the user stories and specs that our product will be built to. And I work with them and our UX lead to design screen flows.

Recently, if I’m really short on time I might use the content that our business analysts have written. Yes, it’s not always the clearest content, and breaks many of the principles of writing for the web. But importantly, it’s not: ‘Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, pro dictas aliquip ne’, and I get some content that I can learn from in testing.

For example, in the homepage of the app we’re building right now, there are a number of section headers that I haven’t had time to test and validate with users. So, currently some of the section headers are labelled as:

  • Organisations
  • Your team
  • PAYE schemes

Despite these headings being passive and not very instructive, user research sessions have shown that users can complete the tasks they need to without much trouble, and importantly, by putting these screens in front of users, I’ve learnt what kind of actions users expect to be able to do within each of these sections of the site.

So, what I’m saying is, you can learn from content, no matter how unfinished it may be.

But you can’t learn very much from: ‘Yardarm rigging tackle me hearties dock loot Shiver me timbers quarter bowsprit gangplank’ (that’s Pirate Ipsem!)

What’s new in content

This blog is a round-up of the best of the Scroll Training newsletter in November. The newsletter is itself a round-up of the best tools, tips and tricks in content strategy and content design. Sign up, don’t miss out…

News, thought pieces, advice

It doesn’t matter what you call it

Struggling to explain what content strategists do? Put the work before the words. Client panics at the sound of a ‘content audit’? Call it a ‘content check’.

A content designer is not just a web editor

Here’s how our friend Beck moved from writing words for websites to designing content based on user needs. (Take our content design bootcamp to get these skills.)

Reasons to be cheerful

Optimistic UI design.

Practical tips and ‘how-tos’

How hashtags work

Hashtags have different effects on different social media. This explains how they work and how to get the best out of them.

20-minute Twitter audit

Find out how well your client’s Twitter account is performing in less time than it takes to get your Deliveroo.

Design better forms

Simple fixes for common mistakes.

Tools

Clever tools for UI writers

Some useful ways to mock up designs to help you test your UI copy, or explain it to developers or designers.

And finally…

It’s content advent calendar time

And look who’s behind door #4. Don’t you wish he could run all your content projects?

 

 

Why your style guide should be a style manual

A style guide is a very useful resource for any organisation. It helps everyone communicating in and from that organisation maintain consistency. It doesn’t tell them how to communicate, though.

A style guide sets out conventions. It doesn’t tell you how to write, what tone of voice you should use, how to manage content or how to communicate effectively.

If you’ve got a style guide, you must update it continually or you’ll find that you’re speaking to users in a style that’s increasingly old fashioned.

In fact, the term ‘style guide’ is becoming increasingly old fashioned. The term ‘style manual’ is increasing in popularity and style manual editors recognise their job isn’t to tell writers what to do, but why they should do it.

Google’s style manual, for example, tells writers to avoid the pronoun “we” and explains why: “Focus on the user and what they can do with your app, rather than what you or your app is doing for the user.”

The GOV.UK style manual tells writers to use contractions because then they can write in a tone of voice that users trust.

Forget what you learned in school

Not everything you learned, of course, but some of the grammar you were taught is probably out of date.

Let’s say you’re 40 years old and were taught grammar in the 1980s by someone who learned it in the 1950s. Grammar rules have changed a lot in the last 60 years.

I edited a national organisation’s style guide a couple of years ago. Its 8,000 words had a lot of archaic rules, such as telling its writers they couldn’t end a sentence with a preposition. This assumes firstly that their writers know what a preposition is and secondly that they would be writing in Latin rather than English.

Everything they were publishing was stuffy and rigid. Using an inflexible style guide was making their writing difficult to trust and engage with. Yes, I did just end that sentence with a preposition. I hope we can still be friends.

Did you notice I used ‘learned’ rather than ‘learnt’ in this section? A good style manual will tell you which spelling to use and why. I don’t know who you are, but I know that you might not be British or that British English might not be your first language. If so, you’re likely to be more comfortable with ‘learned’.

By using a word that all English speakers are familiar with, I’m making sure that I can be understood by all users.

Your audience knows best

You’ve probably read an American magazine recently. On the internet. Or the ‘Internet’ as it most likely would have said. Almost all American journalism follows the Associated Press (AP) Stylebook, which insists on capitalising ‘internet’.

Or it did until earlier this year when AP announced it was changing to the lower case usage. That’s earlier as in earlier in 2016, about 15 years after everyone else thought it was a good idea.

Do you know anyone who uses ‘phone instead of phone? I’ve had it in draft documents in the last year. That’s as in 2016, not 1916. Most users would be confused by it and possibly think it was a typo. If I used ‘phone in content, it would slow down users’ comprehension and lose their trust.

A style manual should tell you why using sentence case makes your text easier to read. Advertisers have known for decades that possessive apostrophes in slogans and display copy slow down users’ comprehension. You’ll never see something that offers “6 months’ free credit”, even though that’s correct English. Likewise, apostrophes in abbreviations and rogue capitalisation makes content harder to read and less approachable.

It’s a manual not a bible

The GOV.UK style manual has a words to avoid section. This was originally a ‘banned words’ list. I worked on transitioning central government departments to GOV.UK in 2012. The first content we transitioned was government policies.

If there’s one thing that policies like to do, it’s ‘promote’ things. There are a number of synonyms I used, but quite often the government might not have been promoting anything. There may have been a target. So instead of, say, ‘promoting energy efficiency’ there was really an action in, for example, ‘giving solar energy grants to householders’.

What if, though, I’d simply swapped ‘promoting’ for ‘encouraging’? Well, I’d have swapped one dogma for another. If in the last 4 years users had read many times that the government was encouraging something, they’d have lost trust in the word ‘encouraging’.

Use a style guide if you’re unsure about a spelling or a capitalisation. But use a style manual to help you create content in language that your users can understand, trust and find.

Trust toolkit – how to build trust with subject matter experts

One of the most important skills for a content designer is the ability to manage relationships with subject matter experts (SMEs) and other stakeholders.

That’s because content designers are at the sharp end of digital transformation. It might be the CEO who sets the grand digital strategy but it’s up to us to implement it – to go and in change the way that people in an organisation communicate online.

We must be able to advocate for content, create consensus and build trust and credibility with stakeholders. If we build good relationships, we get better content, we publish faster and we do a better job for the user.

This ‘trust toolkit’ is a set of practical ways you can build trust with stakeholders. It’s drawn from Scroll’s experience and the experience of the wider community of content designers.

1. We’re not at war

You know the feeling when the product manager ignores all the evidence and keeps the content the same? Or the head of legal insists that your plain English draft can’t be published?

It’s an ugly truth but it’s easy for content designers to get stuck in an us-and-them attitude – where we’re so sick of having our work ignored or belittled that we can get a bit too defensive. And it’s not helpful.

Sure, you can go in all guns blazing and tell people that you’ve trashed all their rubbish changes to your content, but that kind of slash-and-burn attitude means next time you work with them it will be a nightmare. So, remember we’re all on the same side.

2. Explain the process

Don’t assume that people in an organisation know how publishing works. Explain your role (will develop and publish content) and their role (will check facts.) Make sure expectations are crystal clear. Then it won’t come as such a shock when you do your job.

“Explain what fact check is. Explain the first draft of the document they see will have factual errors in it, will look stylistically different to what they’re used to, and their role in the process will be to correct the facts. Empower them with this.” Ronan Fitzgerald, Defra

 

3. Explain digital, share the benefits

Digital content is your world, and you need to be able to confidently explain it. Demystify, myth-bust, share the benefits and your approach will look less scary.

“I’ve often found that fear of the unknown is a factor. So, I explain a little bit about why GOV.UK exists, how it works (including things like sub-topic pages, latest feeds, alerts, collection pages etc.). This helps them to see the positives of working with you to make their content more accessible to their users.” James Low, HMRC

 

3. Don’t be afraid of ignorance

When you first start working on something, you won’t understand the subject matter. That narrow window of ignorance is a gift – grab it with both hands! This is your one chance to see through the eyes of your users, who also won’t know they’re reading about. So – take the chance to learn from the experts. Question everything. Listen to the answers.

“I don’t understand this” is a powerful thing to say. Because if you can’t understand it, neither will users. (And maybe neither do the SMEs.)

4. Prove it works for users

If you can prove what you’re doing is what works best for users, it’s easier get people onside. (A shout-out to DVLA’s great use of guerrilla user research here.)

“Evidence is helpful. People like graphs and numbers, it takes the subjectivity out of the equation.” Alan Maddrell, Government Digital Services

5. Prove you know what you’re talking about

As well as showing evidence of how the content is used, you need to be able to show evidence for your decisions. Why do you use plain English? What is cognitive load? Why use the words your users use? Why use that piece of information here and not there? Why? ‘Because the style guide says so’ is not an answer. So, do your research. Be able to explain why. It’s much easier to trust someone who clearly knows why they are doing what they do.

6. Be credible

Acknowledge what you can and can’t do. Be straight with people. Don’t make promises you can’t keep.

“Be honest about what you can and can’t do, ie you won’t be able to let subject matter experts make style changes, but you will let them make factual changes.” Ronan Fitzgerald, Defra

 

7. Workshop your content

This can work brilliantly. Use for complex pieces of content – for example, if several different organisations or departments are working on it. It’s also a good way to boost a relationship, or solve issues if you’re in deadlock.

Start by sending out a draft. Then book your workshop – in person is best, but phone is better than nothing. Try and get all the SMEs you can into the room, including legal teams. Ideally you need 2 content designers – one to make changes and one to do the talking. Gather all the proposed amends into one document, and then work through them and agree the changes you will make. Top tip: If anyone suggests a change that is purely editorial (or anything else that is your job, not their job, to do) say, “That’s a style change – we’ll consider it” and move on.

Cons: it takes a lot of time and you’ll need to say no if SMEs start wanting to workshop everything you publish.

8. Do pair writing

This works well for building trust and developing content that you and the SME both understand and support. But – use with care. If you’re working with someone who has not been exposed to user-focused design, or is a bit antagonistic, go carefully. Pick something small and easy to work on. Prepare to explain everything you’re doing and trying to achieve as you go along. Read how to do pair writing.

9. If there’s still a problem, find out why

Understand their reasons for resisting or changing what you’re doing. Ask more questions. Get them to describe their thought processes. Understand their requirements – what they want the content to do.

“Understand what the team’s measures of success are… it can help you understand why they might be pushing a particular message or agenda.” Roz Strachan, Government Digital Services.

You have to get to the bottom of what they think and why their perspective is different to yours.

“It’s all a matter of where you’re standing…” Helen Challinor, Department for Education

 

10. Make one small change

If things are getting difficult, start with the quick wins. There is always something that is so self-evidently in need of fixing that everyone agrees you can do it. Make a few quick wins. Then come back again the next day…

 

Want more?

How to collaborate with subject matter experts – some good ideas for starting with bullets and getting SMEs to chunk; also mind-mapping.

Resolving differences of opinion about content – some useful questions to help you work out what someone else’s perspective is based on.

Working with SMEs to improve content – a great success story from the Disclosure and Barring Service.

Editorial, content marketing, advertorial: are we being clear?

For a while, during the earlier epochs of digital evolution, the future looked rather bleak for writers. Extinction seemed the inevitable consequence of an online marketplace whose users expected to get quality content for free. How could such an arrangement be supported; how could a writer make a living out of that?

As it turned out, things aren’t so bad. Hunger for engaging digital content has only increased as the online world begins to supersede more traditional platforms of entertainment and commerce.  Successful organisations are now only too aware that content underpins the relationship they have with their customers; without content there is no relationship. And they are willing to pay good money to keep the relationship sweet.

Content contentment

Not only that, it’s a relationship that can be traded. Advertisers looking to find ways to reach a publisher’s hard-won audience will gladly pay for access to this relationship – and are currently paying more than ever. A record £8.6 billion was splurged on UK digital advertising last year, a jump of 16% on 2014, representing the industry’s fastest growth rate since the economic downturn.

Around 9% of that – some £776 million – was used on content and native advertising, the areas of most value to writers and content designers. It was an increase of 50% on 2014 levels – and the figures don’t even account for money directed towards content marketing, online PR and search engine optimisation.

The UK enjoys the largest per capita digital advertising spend in the world, according to Clare O’Brien of the Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB), who shared her insights at a recent Content, Seriously meetup. A happy alignment of factors, such as the UK’s highly developed creative and advertising services, its mature and ‘compact’ national news and broadcasting industries, and high per capita online consumer spend, make it extremely attractive to digital advertisers.

Predictions about the extinction of writers and other content producers were clearly misplaced. In the race to build audiences and influence opinion, there’s arguably more appreciation for their craft than seemed possible to hope for a decade ago.  And given that users expect free content and are generally hostile to display ads, banner ads and pop-ups (more than 1 in 5 online adults currently use ad-blocking software; under the age of 24 it’s almost a half), it’s no wonder that native advertising is taking an increasingly prominent role in marketing strategy.

Native advertising: softly, softly…

Native advertising is far more subtle than the rude sledgehammering of pop-up ads, and when it’s done well it can be just as appealing as the content it sits in. The idea itself is nothing new. Victorian-era companies twigged early that supplying content to gently steer customers towards a primary product, itself often far removed from the subject matter, was a highly effective way of increasing sales.

A much-cited example is the tyre company Michelin, who published their now famous maps, hotel and restaurant guides as a means of encouraging people to travel more by car – and use more tyres. Their marketing material was so popular it eventually became a brand-defining product in its own right. And even in the 1950s, Guinness was using advertorials about oysters to get people to drink more stout.

The principle online is much the same. It’s about camouflaging the main message – ‘buy our product’ – in content that an audience will not reject as bald advertising. Advertisers use promotional material that appears ‘native’ to the standard editorial content that surrounds it, matching it in style and get-up, and making it seem at face value that it’s from the trusted content provider rather than an advertiser.

…but stay honest!

Of course, advertisers are not allowed to pass off adverts as factual editorial or deceive audiences by concealing the commercial arrangement made between an advertiser and publisher. Native advertising is regulated and the UK has one of the strictest regimes in the world, underpinned by the CAP Code (rarely referred to by its full name, the UK Code of Non-broadcast Advertising and Direct & Promotional Marketing) and enforced by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA).

Their remit has covered digital advertising since 2011, with sanctions that include pre-vetting of content, adverse publicity, removal of paid-for search advertisements; more serious cases can be sent to Trading Standards or the Information Commissioner’s Office for criminal prosecution. In the US, by contrast, general guidelines on native advertising were only introduced at the end of 2015.

Editorial or advertorial?

Regulatory framework has given birth to a whole new glossary of terms for the different types of content that seek to persuade opinion. Scroll through a digital marketer’s playbook and expect to find mention of content marketing, sponsored content, partner content, native advertising, thought leadership, public relations, marketing copy, paid-for content, promoted listings, advertorials, in-feed ads, and probably another small thesaurus’ worth of related terms and euphemisms.

In such a welter of overlapping and fuzzy terms, it can sometimes be difficult for content producers to be sure that they are stepping on the right side of the regulatory line. After all, content is very often designed to be persuasive or influence behaviour. Does that mean such content is automatically subject to the CAP Code?

The crucial difference between content marketing and native advertising, for instance, is that the latter has been paid for and the message is controlled by an advertiser, promoter or marketer in a commercial arrangement with the publisher. Content designed to boost the publisher’s own position, but not directly connected with the supply or transfer of goods or services in non-paid-for space on a company’s own website – what many call content marketing –does not fall under the jurisdiction of the Code.

Be up front about advertising

Clarity is the core principle behind keeping native advertising on the right side of the Code. If a publisher has been paid to communicate or endorse a brand’s message, then it’s advertising – and if it’s advertising the audience has to know it before they start to consume it.

There are many ways to flag up native advertising – one of the reasons there are so many terms for such content. For instance, it could be labelled as ‘sponsored’, ‘suggested by’, ‘presented by’; we’re all familiar with Facebook’s ‘suggested posts’ and Twitter’s ‘promoted tweets’. It could have a visual cue or demarcation to make the boundary between advertising and editorial content obvious. It doesn’t matter how it’s done, Clare O’Brien of IAB said, but it does have to be clear and up front.

In the end, advertisers are paying for a slice of the trust that you have built up with your audience. Fall foul of the Code and you risk facing the reputational damage of naming and shaming and taking your ads down. If you’re audience feels duped, the trust will go – and that was the very commodity you were trading on in the first place. Get it right and your audience will continue to trust and enjoy your content, and advertisers will continue to pay.

 

Many thanks to Clare O’Brien for her contribution to the Content, Seriously meetup. Join the next meetup: www.meetup.com/Content-Seriously-for-London-Content-Professionals/ 

LinkedIn https://www.linkedin.com/in/clareobrien

Get the best bits! The latest thinking in content design and content strategy

Here’s what you might have missed while you had your ‘Out of Office’ on (metaphorically or not) for a sunny, summery August.

This blog is a round-up of the best of the Digital Content Academy newsletter in August. The newsletter is itself a round-up of the best advice, thinking, news and events in content strategy and content design. Sign up, don’t miss out…

News, thought pieces, advice

Agile is for everyone
New to/terrified of agile? Think a sprint is something to do with Usain Bolt? Here is some excellent advice on how to find your feet as a content person on an agile project.

Pandas, penguins and hummingbirds
Penguin 4.0 is launching ‘soon’, says Google. If that means nothing to you, maybe read this cheatsheet.

Content strategy at non-profits
Content strategy work at non-profits has some specific issues – budgets are tiny, resources are tight, and there is generally a huge content / tech debt to sort out. Here’s how Josh Tong did it.

Practical tips and ‘how-tos’

Are you sure?
How to write a confirmation dialogue. Brilliant.

Writing a style guide? How to explain tone
It’s insanely hard to pin down tone in a style guide – to explain it in a way that makes sense to senior management and is actionable by content creators. This Nielsen article gives a good example of a tone scale (and quantifies customer reaction to changes in tone.)

Do better UX for video
We watch 4 billion YouTube videos every day. Mark Zuckerberg says that soon the majority of content we consume will be video. So let’s start learning what good video content looks like for users.

Tools

Canva
Best. Graphic design tool for dummies. Ever.

And finally…

No more postcodes
Mongolia is changing all its addresses to 3-word phrases. (I know, I also thought it was a hoax, but it’s definitely a thing – look at what3words.) Developed because 75% of the world’s population have no mailing address.

 

Image copyright: Chris Blakely, Flickr CC

What happens when content design crashes into the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR)?

 

What would it be like to produce content in a total data vacuum? Picture yourself working in soundproofed blacked-out box with a computer that can only send but never receive information. You have a brief to design some content, but you haven’t been given much information about your users. You’re going to have to rely on intuition and assumption about their needs, interests and behaviour. No matter – you’re a resourceful person, so you make the best of it and cobble together some best-guess content. It’s a relief to press send.

Off it goes into the ether and you’ll never have to think about it, the users or their needs again – because there won’t be any feedback. That includes all metrics, page views, click-throughs, bounces and everything else you’re used to for assessing whether your work is fulfilling its aims. It sounds like a recipe for awful content, doesn’t it? It must be – though of course you won’t get to know either way.

Data drives content

For content professionals, such a scenario in the real world is unthinkable. Content is driven by data and databases, from analytics to A/B testing. Data is the beating heart of how content designers think about user needs and what we do to deliver on them. It’s also the biggest weapon in our armoury when it comes to dealing with sceptical and obstructive forces in the organisations we work for.

And yet, the situation above isn’t just a thought exercise. Working in a data void – or at best with a seriously diminished data set – could well become a reality for many of us in a couple of years if we don’t take timely steps to stay compliant with imminent new data protection legislation, according to Hazel Southwell, Data Protection Consultant, speaking at a recent Content, Seriously meetup.

Ignore data protection at your peril

Content producers who ignore the new rules will be destined to launch their content into the void, she warned, like the Soviet scientists who shot Laika, a Moscow street dog, into space with scant means of monitoring her progress and no hope of her survival. The ill-fated dog died from overheating after only a couple of hours and the scientists learned next to nothing from the adventure. At least she got to be the first animal in orbit – which is far more than content producers can hope for in return for their doomed efforts.

Producing content without user research and analytics (both pre and post publication) makes it far more likely to be irrelevant to target audiences – and useless to our objectives. More than that, data is the trump card, the invincible ace of spades, in any argument about the direction that content should be taking.

How often does data come to our rescue when subject matter experts are blocking improvements to clarity and readability, or when managers are resistant to important content changes? They can’t argue with the data. Without data in the armoury, we’re fighting blindfold with both arms tied behind our back.

Say hello to the General Data Protection Regulation

On 25 May 2018, the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) will come into force, making sweeping changes to rules governing the way we collect, use and store data. It will have an impact on any organisation, whether based inside or outside the European Union, that processes the personal data of any resident of the EU or any EU citizen elsewhere.

Companies will no longer be able to sidestep data protection obligations because their head office is in the US, say, or their servers are in Vanuatu. If they’re dealing with the personal data of EU citizens then they must comply with the rules. So Brexit will not provide a way out for UK organisations either.

The UK currently has one of the toughest data regimes in the world in the Data Protection Act 1998, backed up by the enforcements of the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO). But the GDPR knocks that into the shade, not least with sanctions that are designed to bring the global tech behemoths out in a cold sweat. Even the likes of Google and Facebook might think twice about transgressions, faced with fines totalling €20 million or 4% of worldwide annual turnover – whichever is greater.

Personal data will include photos, email addresses, bank details, social media posts, cookies and IP addresses – anything, in fact, that identifies you directly or indirectly in your private, professional or public life. And if you’re processing this data, whether you’re a multinational or working from your front room, whether you’re turning a profit or not, then you’ll need to comply.

It might be a shock for a humble WordPress blogger to find their use of tools such as Google Analytics (much of which is based on monitoring IP addresses) could fall foul of the law. And their difficulties will be compounded if they deal with personalised content tailored to their audiences – for example, if they use a formula whereby 2 users might see a different paragraph within a single page depending on their age. It seems the quest for making highly relevant content is to become even more tortuous.

So how do you comply with the GDPR?

You’ll have to get explicit consent for obtaining and keeping personal data, which must be given to you freely, rather than as a bargaining chip for accessing your services. You’ll need to ask for it in clear and obvious way, not just imply you’re taking it and going ahead.

Having obtained consent fair and square you’ll have to store it, not only so the ICO can check you’re doing things right, but also so individuals concerned can see what you have on them. They should be able to transfer their data to other data controllers if they want – what’s being described as a new right of ‘data portability’.

Consent can be withdrawn as well as given, and you’ll have to erase data or correct inaccurate data if requested, or restrict processing data if you get an objection. If the data you’re keeping gets compromised through a security breach you may have to notify the relevant authority, the individual concerned or the public at large.

You’ll have to demonstrate that you’re complying with the GDPR, through policies and procedures, staff training, monitoring, documentation – and if your organisation is large enough, with the appointment of a designated data protection officer and appropriate records of your data processing activities.

Privacy will be prioritised by better design (privacy by design) and through more stringent default settings (privacy by default), and you’ll be encouraged to use data only when strictly necessary for your services.

Privacy fights back

If it sounds tough, that’s because it is. There are some obvious exemptions to the rules – such as for national security, defence, law enforcement, public services and health and so on – but it seems the EU has had enough of companies storing and selling huge quantities of personal information, our interests, health, social background, jobs, wealth, education and much more – information that has very likely been obtained in ways we were not wholly aware.

While we unwittingly surrender the details of our address books, calendars, emails and map co-ordinates to apps and companies that seem to have no call to know them, many of us are only dimly realising that our most private information is forming part of a vast global trade far beyond our control. Marketing giant Acxiom, for instance, is said to have stockpiled up to 3,000 separate nuggets of information on each of the 700 million people in its files.

In this context, the GDPR could be a welcome rebalancing in favour of the individual. Even so, EU member states still have some flexibility about how they implement many of the GDPR’s 99 Articles – not to mention the uncertainty of how a post-Brexit UK might slot into those arrangements.

There may also be ways to anonymise or ‘pseudonymise’ data so that it can be used without stepping on anyone’s toes, or making the most of exemptions for statistical research that doesn’t rely on the identifying aspects of the data. The sweep of the legislation may be fixed, but the crispness of its final boundaries are still to be defined.

Respect privacy, improve content, win trust

However the cookie in your cache might crumble come May 2018, content strategists must start putting data protection much higher up the agenda now. Content professionals are creative people and will be able to conjure up inventive and unimposing ways for users to give consent about their personal data.

It’s in everyone’s interests that content is engaging and relevant, and it won’t take much for users to understand how important data is for the best in content creation. It will be even more important for content professionals to create the kind of compelling content that will make users care enough to click the consent button – in whatever form it takes – without a second thought.

Many thanks to Hazel Southwell for her contribution to the Content, Seriously meetup.

LinkedIn https://uk.linkedin.com/in/hazel-southwell-55781412

 

Talk to us

 

Don’t miss this – advice, tips and tricks for content strategy and content design

Here’s what you might have missed last month while you were busy with Brexit and related drama…

This blog is a round-up of the best of the Digital Content Academy newsletter in June. The newsletter is itself a round-up of the best advice, thinking, news and events in content strategy and content design.

The newsletter goes out every second Thursday. Don’t miss out.

News, advice, thought pieces

Government digital needs you!
The Government Digital Trends survey shows that, while the digital transformation agenda is a growing force in government, lack of skills is a major blocker.

Data + narrative = user journey
This is a brilliant case study, showing how you need to understand the analytics and also the narrative, the story arc, if you really want to craft a journey that works for users. So imaginative.

How millennials behave online
Confident, error-prone, different to everyone else.

Practical advice and how-tos

How to do remote moderated user testing
Common excuses for not doing user research: 1. no budget 2. don’t know what to test 3. don’t know who to test it on 4. actually don’t really know how to do it. (If you want to keep using those excuses, don’t read this post.)

Link to 1 thing, once only
This is the user experience rule we probably don’t follow enough.

Google’s style tips for UI
Writing copy for user interfaces? These will really help you up your game. Sample: ‘Focus on the user and what they can do with your app, rather than what you or your app is doing for the user.’

Tools

Amazing visual search tool
We love this tool. It scrapes Google search suggestions to provide keywords, but powerfully grouped into question facets. And then beautifully visualised.

Exactly what people do on your website
HotJar is a brilliant little tool to help you (and your clients) understand how people are using your site. Heatmaps, visitor recordings, conversion funnels and form analytics. Free to try.

And finally….

Exit strategy
A level-headed look at why you need a strategy in case you need to exit a position – be that a CMS, a social media channel or, say, a political union of countries. Emphasises the need to plan carefully, to account for what could go wrong, and to be prepared to act if the worst happens. Deserves to be widely read.

Get these newsletters

Sign up here for the Digital Content Academy newsletters, every second Thursday.

Prevent content from being a project blocker

A common time for organisations to take a long, hard look at their content is during a ‘web refresh’ project. This is when an organisation wants to update the look and feel of its website. It’s usually prompted by a business need – new functionality, rebranding after an acquisition or merger, or a simple update to keep the brand fresh. 

Often now, the scope of such projects goes beyond the website – complexity grows as we see more mobile access, more personalised content delivery as part of omnichannel environments, and more connectivity between software systems. So the term ‘web refresh’ is showing its age – but that’s a whole different article.

 One of the common choke points during a web refresh project is content.  At the end of a conference presentation, it’s not uncommon to be approached by a developer, manager, or other project team member with tales of woe about the state of their content. These reveal common themes:

  • “It’s been two years since we finished our end of the work, but the site hasn’t launched yet because they don’t have the content for it.”
  • “We had our user experience guy do the information architecture, but migrating the content over from the old system is such a nightmare.”
  • “We wanted our bid to be competitive so we excluded content, and the client has no idea how to deal with it, and we’re not prepared to deal with it.”
  • “We did this great design, and now we have to make all these adjustments because the content doesn’t fit.”

The systemic bias against content

The industry adage is that ‘content is king’, yet experience shows that it more often gets treated like the court jester. This bias against content is real. On digital projects, the visual designers are asked to mock something up to show the client. They might even be asked to mock up some functionality – a slider or a carousel. The content that goes into that mockup is often some dummy Latin text as a placeholder. The assumption is that the client will be persuaded by the beauty of the container, no matter what goes inside.

 

 

To use a metaphor, let’s pretend that your company is a coffee chain, and you ask an agency to update your business presence. They obsess about the signage, the shop windows, the furniture, the fancy barista equipment, the colour of the coffee cups and the angle of the lids. But when it comes to the actual coffee? They’ve brought in a couple of teenagers, handed them a jar of instant and an electric kettle, and poured something brown into the cup.

This is too often the case with content.

Look inside the digital agencies that get the web refresh contracts, from the boutique micro-consultancy to the world’s largest and most reputable, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find qualified content professionals. In fact, you’ll be hard-pressed to find content professionals at all. You will find developers and designers, because they are perceived as specialists and their work has therefore become valued.

Content, however, is perceived as ‘that stuff that anyone can do’. Agencies are happy to leave content to the client – hoping that the client can figure it out on their own.

Content development as a business skill

If the business adage is ‘content is king’, there’s an adage among content pros that goes something like ‘just because you can write, it doesn’t mean you can write professionally’. We all learned to write in primary school, but that writing bears little resemblance to the work that content professionals do. You might enjoy your Sunday bike rides, but that’s got nothing to do with the Tour de France.

 

 

So, writing is no longer ‘just’ writing; it’s no longer adequate to simply create copy. The craft has become content development – and it can get complicated.

To give you a few examples, the difference between writing for business communication and writing for digital delivery is like the difference between making a sandwich at home and running a restaurant. It’s not just the amount of content that is the difference. It’s the planning and scheduling; it’s understanding the differences of writing for desktop and writing for mobile; it’s the tagging and metadata to make sure the content can be processed properly and is findable by search engines. To quote a client, “this is what separates amateur speculators from professionals.”

Also, let’s not forget the external forces that content developers need to factor into their work. One example is organic search. A professional content developer pays attention to the changes to the algorithms that search engines, particularly Google, use to determine what is ‘good’ content. Content developers need to understand the implications so they can adjust their writing styles, metadata, and schema use, to help search engines find content.

Putting content to work

We have established that content is central to how you describe your products and services. It’s the articles that people read. It’s the instructions that people follow. It’s the photo and the description, the infographic or chart, the product specs, and the supporting material that persuades consumers to click the ‘Buy’ button. Copy is the content that consumers see, and metadata is the content that consumers don’t see. Together, the copy plus metadata comprise content that can be searched and found, delivered and viewed, understood, and acted on.

What goes into the making of digital content starts with a strategy and culminates in the content itself. Here are some of the basic considerations.

The content structure

The structure, codified in a content model, defines how content works within delivery systems, such as a CMS (content management system). The model is created by determining all the kinds of content that need to be created and work together to meet the business requirements. A content strategist would create a domain model, content types, content flows, and then consolidate them into a model. The developers or CMS integrators use this model to build rules about how content gets transported through the system, and delivered to a publishing system or shared with other software systems.

The semantics

There are various standards that technologies such as a CMS use to deliver content to other technologies. The content needs to conform to these standards. A content strategist would work with the technologists to determine which schemas are used, how the taxonomy is set up, which metadata fields are required and how they will be configured, how many channels the content needs to get published to, and so on.

The content

The copy must engage consumers, and fulfil their expectations in terms of user experience. A content professional also writes the adaptive copy that will be delivered to specific channels or outputs. They then add the metadata that allows systems to automatically process the content and provides search engines with the right information. The content also needs to be checked for editorial quality, factual accuracy, consistency, and technical integrity.

Remove the blockers from your project

Given the prominent role that content plays, and the complexity involved in dealing with the setup and management of content, it is time for organisations and their agencies step up their game. Rather than minimise the role of content in digital projects, and the role of the professionals who develop it, it is in the best interest to involve them throughout the project. 

Involve a content strategist while the vision and strategy are being formulated. Have the strategist work alongside the CMS integrators to develop the content model, or at least contribute to it. The content strategist will understand the vision for delivering content to meet business requirements, and their perspective will inform what the content model looks like.

Assign content strategists or content designers to work alongside the user experience team as they flesh out the presentation framework. Content takes time to develop, whether it’s new content or content rewritten to work in the new content model or on the new site, and this gives the content professional time to work on the launch-critical content.

Have a content professional work with the client-side writers to teach them how content will work in the new system, and what the expectations are around creating and maintaining the content. This is often a new experience for writers, who need some training around topics such as using formats and templates, semantic structures, metadata, and taxonomies. They may also need help with content governance, such as setting up and following workflow.

In the end, the best strategy toward removing blockers from content is to embrace the role of content and face the challenge head on: put content in the centre of your project. Getting your content in order is an integral part of the process – and integral suggests integrating content into the overall fabric of a project.

There is no magic bullet, but when done right, the result *is* magic.

 

 

Content strategy tips for future-friendly content

No one likes stale content. That’s why we do our best to give it a long life, making it interesting and relevant to our audience in ways that could endure weeks, months or even years.

The same goes for content design, but this has the added difficulty of going past its sell-by date because of the technology it relies on.

The past is another planet

Only a decade ago, your phone was a tiny thing with a small screen and numeric buttons like a school calculator. You used it to make a call – it’s a phone, isn’t it?

Somewhere in its labyrinthine menus was an option to go online, but once you’re there it was so slow and clunky that you didn’t bother, and did all your surfing on your computer at home.

Anyway, there was no hurry, no relentless soundtrack of pings from incoming emails, chat and tweets. Twitter, Apple Push Notifications, apps hadn’t been invented. Social media was just a fuzz on the dim horizon that only a few were coming to realise would be massive.

It’s not that long ago, a decade, and yet in terms of the way we communicate with and relate to each other, it might as well be another epoch.

When Wikipedia was launched, there was up to a five year time-to-obsolescence on web-enabled services. Now it’s around 12 months, and shortening all the time – a rate of change known as ‘velocity of obsolescence’.

And if change is ever quicker for software and hardware, where does this leave content design? How can content designers meet the goal of providing fresh engaging content across time, space and devices?

A content-first approach

We may not know what the future has in store for us, but this doesn’t have to be an obstacle, according to Mike Atherton, veteran information architect and UX coach. For him, it’s not so much about defying time, but about being future friendly.

Talking at Scroll’s Content, Seriously meetup recently, he stressed the importance of putting content first. Design the content before thinking about the interface, and the future isn’t such an issue. Users get to engage with your content as and when they please, whether on a laptop, tablet, phone or watch.

He illustrated his point with his design for the latest website of the upcoming IA Summit in Atlanta, Georgia. Previously, a new site had to be designed every year from scratch, which was a good exercise for volunteers, but left the summit without a clear and enduring brand.

The task, then, was to create a future-friendly website that could be easily updated and applied to changing user needs, regardless of interface or location.

Complexity behind, clarity in front

The trick, he said, was to create a ‘domain model’ from the off, which describes the subject and how all the concepts and relationships hold together within that. It’s not the same as a sitemap – it’s a stage removed from websites – and nor is it just a summary of content.

The domain model explains the complexity of the subject and enables content designers to decide which parts they want to show on what interface. It also enables them to balance comprehensive detail against user accessibility, what Mike called ‘complexity behind the scenes and clarity up front’.

He showed how the domain model described the relationship of the main concepts to each other, such as event, venue, location, person, role, session and session format. If domain models capture the overall context, the content model zooms in to detail, its properties and how it’s offered to users, giving it its structure.

In his example, the ‘person’ concept from the domain model becomes explained in terms of its inherent properties, such as name, company, job title, biography, job title, associated website and Twitter ID.

Once content is broken down into these atoms, it’s only at this stage that the design needs inform the ‘granularity’ of the content model, where and how the atoms appear in relation to each other.

Structured content is future friendly

This makes it straightforward to apply the structured content into the content management system (CMS), which can deal with it in terms of its properties, content types and relationships.

Use an unstructured CMS and you get what Mike called ‘blob’ content – a mess of pages, titles and rambling body fields, in which the relationships between each part are lost, formatting is made ad hoc and links are added by hand.

Style clashes are far more likely, but even worse from a user’s point of view is that the core concepts that hold the content together become trapped in and swamped by the body field.

Future-friendly content, he said, is ‘stored, structured, and connected outside any interface’, but ‘ready to use in every interface’.

In ten years from now, as we zip around on hoverboards, browsing the web on our trousers, these principles are still likely to be true.

Next steps

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.

More

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

More

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.

Portfolio Items