Written with Nikki Kerber for the February 2016 issue of UXPA Magazine
The most common mistake by organizations designing a website, app, or other digital product is breaking the number one rule of human-centered design: put content where users are most likely to look for it. Instead, mission-driven organizations, in particular, such as government agencies and nonprofits, muddle the execution of their design as they struggle to promote their message and meet the needs of stakeholders.
These organizations make one of two mistakes in structuring and creating content:
- Organizing content according to their organizational chart. This is especially prevalent in government agencies and organizations that embrace institutional silos.
- Organizing content according to the intended audience group, requiring them to self-identify into the right group to find the information they seek. This often happens when the organization prioritizes what they have to say over what users need.
In both cases, the end result is splintered content that’s difficult to find in the overall information architecture. Neither approach puts the needs of the user first.
Good user experience dictates that users’ needs take priority. While that may not meet the organization’s immediate need to promote their latest marketing campaign, happy users are certainly more receptive to further messaging and engagement. A user-centered approach to creating and packaging content focuses on the end-goal the organization has for the audience and the impact the organization wants to have on their audience’s behavior.
This is more than a subtle change in thinking for most organizations. Mission-driven organizations are often powered by passionate people who put their heart and soul into their work and develop an attachment to what they produce. This can make it difficult for them to embrace change. Establishing a content strategy with clear goals and a defined approach to meeting them will keep content creators on track and help measure success.
In the simplest terms, a content strategy is defined as the planning, development, and delivery of useful and usable content that both meets your organizational needs and those of your target audience. While the concept of a content strategy may seem daunting or tedious, content strategy is the center of a good user experience, regardless of platform. The end result is a flexible, yet solid guide that the whole organization can use.
Your final content strategy should take the form that works best for your organization, whether that be a Word document or digital pages on an intranet. Whatever form it takes, there is a proven roadmap for developing one.
Let Your Mission and Vision Guide You
Clearly stating your desired end result and publishing it is a powerful guiding factor and motivator. It’s important to revisit your mission and vision statements with all of your content creators to ensure everyone stays focused on the core values of the organization. It’s also important to benchmark where you are on the path to your ultimate goal and set realistic and stretch milestones with a timeline. Growth requires accountability, so review your successes and failures regularly to celebrate and learn from every effort.
Know your Audience
An effective and efficient strategy for delivering your message and meeting your users’ needs depends on knowing the audience you serve. Traditional personas (a fictitious “typical user”) can be useful for guiding content and communication decisions by creating a clear picture of the expectations and needs of major user groups of your site. Effective personas describe a real person and tell the story of his or her journey with you.
Primary and secondary research, user analytics, and other concrete data are the best foundation for creating realistic personas. Analyzing the data can also help you prioritize users so you put resources where they can be most beneficial.
Personas segment your audience into manageable, representative groups to help content creators better communicate with the end user. Segments can be based on demographics, lifestyle attributes, or user journeys to create an accurate representation of the average user of your digital property. The more detailed the information curated in the persona, the more helpful personas are in guiding content decisions. However, the details should focus on the user’s relationship to your digital property.
Some key elements to consider in your persona include:
- Demographics: Name, age, ethnicity, level of education, and family status
- Profession: Job title and primary responsibilities
- User Journey: Physical and social environment (especially when using your site), information needs, and challenges your site should be meeting
- Additional color, such as a quote about how your site meets a need. A picture of the fictional person adds dimension to the persona.
Depending on the complexity of your audience, it may be difficult to filter personas into a manageable number. An alternative method is segmenting your audience based on their behaviors, specifically as they relate to your industry. This approach allows you to find commonalities among diverse groups. For instance, the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) based their audience profiles on how users consume health information online, which allowed them to narrow 20 personas based on demographics down to a more manageable seven audience profiles based on information consumption behaviors (see the NHLBI Audience Profile Case Study below for the more detail).
Map Your Messages
Every audience needs different kinds of information at each stage in their information journey. Developing journey maps (Figure 1) to show trends can help with developing content for audience segments. One of the journey maps NHLBI created follows patients’ general emotional states and communication needs as their condition progresses.
Users’ emotional states and communication needs alter how they perceive information and provide indicators for engagement opportunities. Mapping potential messages to your user’s journey provides additional insight and ensures your messages are tracking towards your goals.
Figure 1. This journey map from USA.gov shows Michael’s path as he tries to get information about taxes. The map features the stages of his journey in relation to the steps he takes, his feelings along the way, and opportunities for improving his experience. Read a description of this image. (USA.gov)
Evaluate Your Assets
Now that you have a clear understanding of your objectives and the needs of your audience, it’s time to look at the current state of your content to determine what’s needed to improve its efficacy and impact. There are several ways you can prioritize users’ needs and learn how content is consumed and understood:
- Conduct a content audit. Doing so will provide statistics on how many content pages are available to users, and the overall theme of content provided. Pairing the audit with search and page-level traffic analytics and can help prioritize how important individual pieces of content are to users.
- Analyze content for gaps. A content analysis can help content owners see where potential gaps exist for each audience profile and the value each content piece provides. For example, you may notice that a particular audience profile does not get much attention from your organization, and new content may need to be written or repurposed to match their needs. You may also have to prioritize what needs you can sustainably meet.
- Card sort. An easy way to see where your users look for content is by usability testing the current information architecture to see where users get lost within the site structure. Most often the results of the initial card sort help stakeholders understand that their digital platform is not structured with their audience profiles in mind.
Put Your Users First
Good user experience employs human-centered design to reduce the work of consuming content, by presenting it in a way that a typical user might expect to find it and layering it in digestible pieces. Older content models worked more like funnels, directing users through content along a set path. New models create open environments that allow users to explore and discover what’s most relevant to their needs. They allow for scanning across a collection to see what’s available and diving deeper into areas of the most interest. Smart creators optimize their most used content to open doors to other information users may not even know they need.
Effective content packages address users’ appetites for information given time and device restraints. We live in an always-on world. Exploring content via a mobile device during a commute is helpful, however digesting long or complex content on a small screen is difficult. Using a layered approach, users have the option to skim the surface of a topic and take a deep dive when it’s more convenient.
To increase the ease of usability, readability, and audience engagement, content should be presented with a flexibility that takes into account users’ appetites for information and creates multiple entry points across a suite of content. This approach, called Bite-Snack-Meal, involves creating an impactful story users can consume during various points in their interaction with the organization. The approach can be used on specific pieces of content to draw users along content paths. Landing pages can give users the opportunity to survey the content available (the bites) and drill down where they are most interested (snacks and meals). Pull quotes or callout facts on an article (bites) tease readers and entice them to read the whole thing (the meal). When used well, they draw users into an article.
The example below (Figure 2) shows a Bite-Snack-Meal approach for multiple pieces of content from across the audience spectrum related to one of NHLBI’s priority topics, Weight Management and Obesity. In this example, all of the content is derived from the evidence presented in the Obesity Panel Systematic Evidence Review (SER). Using an established taxonomy, NHLBI can tag content across multiple sections of the public site with the same term, relating them to each other. Links to related content can surface on any page allowing users to get a bigger picture of what NHLBI offers on a given topic and dive deeper in areas they find most relevant to their needs. Here are three use case examples to show how users might find their way from one area to another on the website:
- A doctor sees the Obesity Panel’s Meeting Summary (2) or Systematic Evidence Review (1) in the Our Science section (A), which shows related content in other parts of the website. The doctor clicks on one of these links to the information in the Health Topic section (C) to share with patients.
- A legislative aid might link from the Congressional Justification (4) in the About section (B) to either the supporting scientific documents in the Our Science section (A) or review the information made available to the general public in the Health Topics section (C).
- The Health Topic (C) is the most likely entry point for the average person looking for information on weight loss. If that person is looking on his mobile device on the bus, the Quick Tip (7) would give a clue that more information is available when he has time or access to look at more detailed information (5 and 6). The more scientific content is also available if there’s interest (1, 2, and 3).
Figure 2. Seven pieces of content related to weight management and obesity are plotted according to their complexity and length on the Bite-Snack-Meal matrix. (Rachel Weatherly, Sapient Government Services)
Socialize and Implement Your Plan
A comprehensive content strategy exists where your organizational goals and your users’ needs converge. It carefully maps how they relate to each other and what content will be produced to meet them. With the limited resources available for most mission-driven organizations, a cohesive content strategy can maximize the return on investment of those resources.
A strategy can’t be useful or successful if it’s not embraced and implemented. As previously mentioned, a new approach to content may be more than a subtle culture shift for your organization, making it important to gain support from stakeholders at all levels. Here are some final essentials for success:
- Make data-driven decisions. Letting analytics and research guide your decisions, instead of emotions and attachment, gives your strategy a strong foundation and the strategy team strong footing for getting buy-in on the plan across the organization.
- Stay focused on your users. Mission-driven organizations thrive when they build strong relationships with their constituents. Using the deep insights gleaned from the process of developing your strategy, your organization will be better equipped to balance the goals of your organization with those of users. When in doubt, put your users’ needs first to increase your overall engagement with them.
- Communicate along the way. Transparency in your development process, listening to stakeholders’ needs, and clear communication about goals and impact go a long way toward smoothing the path to change.
- Be brave and lead by example. Change can be scary, so get your leadership team on board early and ask them to advocate your strategy. Leaders need to understand, endorse, communicate, and if necessary, defend the strategy and how it fits into the larger organizational direction.