Content Centred Design – A methodology (Part 2)

July 13, 2010

In Part 1 I discussed the importance of considering content during the whole of the design process and the need to give it the same weight that the user through UCD/UX currently receives in most web projects. So how might this be accomplished?

I recognize that all web projects are unique is some way and any approach has to be tailored, so in this post I’m going to provide a fairly high level methodology, a methodology however that gives users and content the same emphasis. It has now become the norm that the needs and wants of users are considered at every stage of a project. I want content to have the same recognition.

UX methodology

There are many versions around of what a ‘UX or UCD methodology’ might be (for a good overview try this Slideshare presentation). There are so many varieties of UCD/UX and I think that most of them are probably needed as web projects can be so different that no one approach can ever work well for all types of project. In trying to nail down an approach to UCD/UX that I can use to show how content might be managed I have decided to opt for the deliverables in Dan M. Brown’s excellent book Communicating Design. This book has been of great help to me because it doesn’t muddy the waters with prescribing exactly what should be done and when. Dan Brown has abstracted the really concrete things that need to be done during any web project – the deliverables. As Dan Brown says himself –

‘Methods come and go but documents appear to remain more or less consistent’.

Of course there are some implied timelines as you shouldn’t produce wireframes before you have conducted user research but it has to be recognized that, especially when using an agile approach, things can be done in different orders. What doesn’t change is the deliverables themselves. So this is what I am going to use to represent the UX process.

What are the user deliverables?

Dan Brown splits the deliverables into three types –

User Needs Documentation which includes personas, usability test plans and usability test results

Strategy Documentation which includes concept models, content inventories and competitive analysis

Design Documentation which includes wireframes, flowcharts, site maps and screen designs

These deliverables can be represented as below. The sequence is a general indication only of how these deliverables might be structured and is only for the purpose of this discussion.

Users and content as two sides of the same coin

OK so now we can see how UX is considered during the design process. So where does content fit in? I find it easiest to consider content as the other side of the user coin so that for every user centred activity there should either be a corresponding content centred activity or it should impinge on a later content activity.  Using the UX deliverables graphic from above perhaps this is what it might look like –

Let’s have a look at what the content centred deliverables might entail –

Content Inventories

You can see that I have moved the Content Inventory deliverable from the ‘User’ side to the ‘Content’ side. Traditionally it seems that content inventories are carried out at later stages of a project more as to give some clues as to what the navigation structure might look like. My idea of what an initial content inventory should look like is not the conventional hierarchical spreadsheet. What the inventory should be concentrating on is –

  • Finding out what types of content are out there
  • Whether particular types of content are general or only exist in specific parts of the website
  • What state the content is in ( obsolete, not updated, irrelevant etc)

The traditional Content Inventory won’t achieve these goals. A technique such as Content Value Analysis will as it relies on sampling which means that, as an initial exercise, it can be completed in a reasonable amount of time and is flexible enough to accommodate any heuristic you might want to use.

If the web site or intranet is new and there isn’t any content then you can still do a Content Value Analysis exercise on your competitors or web sites that you think might fall into the general area of what you are trying to achieve.  After all most of those web sites will have spent time getting their content right and you can give you clues as to what you should do. If on the other hand. like many sites. they have got it wrong, then at least you will know what you shouldn’t do.

Content ‘personas’

In UX personas are generalized versions of the user based on research. Why can’t content have the same? Based on the Content Value Analysis exercise it should be possible to identify patterns when it comes to types of content, where the content is and how users consume the content. It should then be possible to come up with four or five typical pieces of content that represent 90% or more of the content that exists. Now throughout the design process when team members need to get a handle on what the content actually is, or what you might want it to be, they should be able to look at a single piece of paper which will give them an overview through content personas. A Content Persona might be as simple as describing the type of content, say a text only Word document, and file size but, where appropriate, a lot more detail might be required. The persona however should succinctly sum up the content type in a way that other team members can easily digest and preferably on a single page.

Content review

This should be an iterative activity throughout the project but it will be especially important during the ‘strategy’ phase. We have identified content personas which should inform the initial round of user research. The Content Review should consider the data generated during user research and testing as well the the data from the Competitive Analysis and initial Concept Models. This activity is probably the most important content related activity. It should detail what content is to be presented to user, where, when and how. It must be subject to constant amendment during the project’s lifetime if the final outcome is to be successful. This should not be a ‘dry’ exercise as I believe a good Content Review needs as much creative and lateral thinking as any other part of the project.

Content modules 1

‘Lorem ipsum’ is anathema when it comes to content centered design. It should never be used at any stage of a project even the initial wireframes. To this end part of the design function is to come up with realistic content modules based on the ongoing content review. The modules do not need to typify every content type but they should cover the majority of types used. If content in one area is different to another this allows the wireframe to reflect some of the reality of what the page design will have to accomplish. If a page cannot handle an important content type then the page design, not the content, needs to be changed.

Content journies

In Dan M. Brown’s book ‘Flow Charts’ are treated as a general deliverable but he also spends some time on ‘User Flows’, that is flow charts which describe real or potential user interactions with a web interface. These flow charts are also called ‘user journies’ as they describe how the user ‘travels’ through a web site and what they do on specific pages. I do not recommend that ‘content journies’ be carried out as a separate activity but rather that the content that users might need be considered as part of a single ‘user journey’ approach. This might then not just address where the user might go but also what they will need to consume or interact with when they get there. This could also be a good way of testing to see if there are any gaps in the content set.

Content maps

Site maps are produced for many web sites as the web site is being developed and can be of great help to the team in giving an overview of the entire site, and its categories, on (usually) a single page. The site map can also be a great help to users who may want to get an idea of what a web site might contain without having to spend time navigating through the web pages. If a site map is being developed then it makes sense to include content. Again I wouldn’t recommend doing a ‘content map’ as a separate exercise but as part of the site map activity. By doing this it should be possible to see what content goes where, what areas might need special content types and also to give an overview of the state of content for each area on the map. This can be very useful in ensuring that content required for launch is being produced to the quality required and on time.

Content modules (2)

When the final designs are being prepared, content modules should also be designed which reflect the current state of knowledge about the content that is going to be used on the site. As with the wireframes hi-fi designs should never use ‘lorem ipsum’ but realistic content modules that will ensure that the final designs can handle the content without either the content degrading the design intentions or vice versa.

So who should actually carry out these content activities?

I think for very large content heavy projects it would be wise to engage a Content Strategist but for most projects I feel that the user and content approaches might be best served by integrating them. I feel that in many cases an information architect (IA) might be well placed to take on content deliverables as they are similar to the user deliverables they are already used to dealing with. I also think that having a single responsibility for both the user experience and content will make it more logical in terms of the trade-offs that may be required between the two.

These are just some initial thoughts on how content centered design might be achieved. Apart from Content Value Analysis (CVA) I have no clear idea of what the content deliverables might look like and indeed this might be no bad thing as they may need to be radically different from project to project. If you have any thoughts on content I’d be grateful for your comments.

(Thanks to Dawn Endico for the Flickr CC photo)

9 Responses to “Content Centred Design – A methodology (Part 2)”

  1. Thanks for part 2 Patrick. Any approach that acknowledges the central role of content in a web project has my vote.

    It’s been interesting to follow the path that the “content strategy” juggernaut has taken over the last several months. Authors and practitioners are honing their language and methods; debating the use of various terms within the discipline, and generally breeding recognition, if not always an understanding of the scope and importance of content among clients.

    Now if we can just find a way to help small businesses understand and produce “kingly” content. I’m talking about really small businesses. How do we help plumbers, bed and breakfast owners, funeral home owners, restaurateurs, and gutter shops owners understand that a website is no longer something you “do” and you’re done?

    If a website is no longer a static brochure, but a marketing tool, a dynamic publishing platform that requires skills and resources to support, then how do we craft content-savvy solutions for people with minimal skills (and I emphasize this since crappy content is not a solution), and limited resources.

    I’m just saying… 🙂

    • patrick c walsh Says:

      Thanks for your comment. I agree with you but I think it needs to go further than that. I’ve worked in automotive quality and seen over a few decades how quality moved from being only something that an inspector did at the end of a production line to being subsumed into every activity from the very inception of a project right through to the maintenance period and close down. It has taken time to get the quality message across.

      The same is required for content. Content should be everybody’s business when it comes to design. Guess we’ll just have to keep on pushing the message…

      (Sorry Part 2 took so long but a family holiday (without a computer in sight) took precedence)


      • I do agree that quality content (useful and usable) must be on everyone’s radar throughout a project. It’s everyone’s responsibility to carefully craft and deliver the message. What’s more, content isn’t really a “project.” There’s no discreet ending. It’s ongoing. 🙂 Perhaps that’s the greater challenge for small organizations with limited resources – the cost of managing content.

      • patrick c walsh Says:

        I absolutely agree and thanks for taking the time to reply.
        Any new web design (or re-design) may have a finite project life but content management needs to be an ongoing iterative activity. I’d be really interested if someone did some research to see what turned off users the most, a bad design or obsolete content. I know what I think the answer might be…

  2. Rahel Bailie Says:

    This is a good start on a methodology for a content strategy. There has been a fair bit published lately on components of content strategy. A couple of excellent resources are:

    These should fill in some of the missing blanks.

    • patrick c walsh Says:

      Thanks for the comment and the links. I will have a trawl through them tonight.
      I think the methodology I have proposed is quite simplistic and is probably full of holes but I just wanted to start a conversation about content especially in the IA and UX communities who for too long seem to have hidden behind ‘Lorem ipsum’. Even if design teams used no particular methodology but just considered content at each milestone it would improve things greatly. However I think that looking at content as a deliverable, a mandated tangible piece of work that has to be completed in a time scale, may improve things even more.


  3. Rachel Says:

    Most awesome picture of books ever. Thanks.

  4. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Rachel Mulcrone, Ann Priestley. Ann Priestley said: Content centred design – two part blog from manIA on putting content into #UX […]

  5. […] Content centred design – two part blog on putting content into UX […]

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