Perfect the process not the content
How many times have you seen a document entitled something like ‘Final content v33’?
When in reality, the concept of ‘final content’ is a myth. There’s no such thing. And yet, I still speak to practitioners who ask me if the content has been ‘signed off’ and ‘finalised’. This is old-school content production inherited from the days of print, when errors were costly. Or worse, these habits come from the days where promises were etched into stone.
The “Edstone” stunt still brings a smile to my face. It saw then-Labour leader Ed Miliband erect an 8ft 6in, two-tonne slab with Labour’s six election pledges carved into its surface.
Whilst Miliband’s intention was to assure the electorate that Labour wouldn’t go back on its promises, the installation quickly became a national laughing stock, even within its own party.
Rather than an unmoving slab of limestone, content is data. It grows, multiplies and divides over time, just like the peaks and troughs of the organisations which own it. This means our design approach to data should handle such change too.
The ‘final content’ mindset creates disposal content. We should be thinking about sustainable design and development solutions which allow content to grow alongside an organisation.
When working with clients at Manifesto, we can add value by thinking about longevity right from the beginning. We’ve put together some useful nuggets of advice to help you create scalable and sustainable designs with a content-first approach.
Content with change
Content designers wear multiple hats when they create their content. But arguably, the most important hat of all is understanding the digital strategy. If you are not responsible for the digital strategy but you know who is, now is the time to check in with them to understand how content production reflects the organisation’s direction of travel.
Here are some questions you can ask to ensure there is alignment between the content and digital strategy:
- what are the organisational goals for the next 12 months?
- what’s underperforming and needs some love?
- which systems or services are set to be retired?
- which new ones will be introduced?
- what change does your end user need to know about?
Knowing the answers to these questions becomes critical to damage control during a design process. They will preempt the stakeholder coming to the 11th hour and asking where the information about the ‘new hub’ (shiver) will sit.
Supply-demand content chain
When introducing new content to the information architecture (IA), or even at component-level with a new summary or description field, you have a responsibility to ensure said content is maintainable.
Every word, paragraph, summary, and link creates an overhead for someone, somewhere, to manage. So, who’s going to manage it? And do they have the skills and experience required to do so?
If we think about content in a supply-demand setting, it’s also important to ask whether your staff (suppliers) can meet demand (users). Do your in-house editors have the right resources, time, and skills to fulfil the user’s needs?
Understanding the skills and experience within the organisation can ensure the shiny new content you’re introducing to it is maintainable. We’d recommend employing a Business Analyst (BA) who can conduct a skills audit to inform your training approach.
Content editor as primary user
Your website will only ever be as good as the editors who use it.
Take your time identifying editorial and workflow requirements for publishing content, by asking questions such as:
- who needs to see the content before it’s published?
- who are your subject matter experts (SMEs)?
- will the SMEs need access to the platform?
- does the size of your organisation require a hierarchical editorial structure, including content editors who only draft content and approvers who publish?
Whilst more complex workflows might require something bespoke like GatherContent, which allows editors the flexibility to edit on the platform itself. Bespoke platforms also allow content designers to wire in validation messages which encourage editors to be better editors. So they’re a win all round.
Designing with scale in mind
During the design and development process, I wear the hat of both the end-user and the client to problem-solve design solutions which crop up along the way. One of my principles is: flexibility, within reason.
This comes down to two reasons:
- I put my life savings on the chance a client will ask for this flexibility once they’ve spent a bit of time on the platform
- It gives content editors more power to offer the end user something better
At the design stage, I use real-life content to stress-test ideas. My interest lies in scalable components which allow users to browse both short and long page lengths, titles and summaries.
Why? Because getting an organisation to write more concise content will take time. And if you’ve got a relatively short term project to implement new designs, this can be a forgiving way forward.
Here are some other examples when designing for scale:
- stress-testing the navigation design with the actual IA means you know it can handle the depth of the website/app on desktop, tablet and mobile
- exploring how multiple assets such as images, links, and PDFs (gasp) might look if stacked on top of each other
The big cheese, the super user
At the development stage, look at roles and permissions to ensure the big cheese – the super user – has the necessary flexibility to independently handle change on the content management system (CMS).
I tend to look out for the following permissions:
- ability to change navigation item labels
- changing form label names and help text
- managing email content if sent from the CMS
Opening up permissions to clients comes heavily caveated with a structured approach to coaching and training. That way, you can ensure bad habits and behaviours don’t let down the standards of the design and experience.
Let it fly
My approach is perhaps more relaxed than other content designers. That’s because in reality, lessons and insights happen when the product launches. It’s like letting your balloon fly. That’s when the organisation starts to learn how it can cope in real-world scenarios.
The tunnel vision which often conquers approaches during project delivery is just a ruse. A moment in time where we get a bit fixated on the perfect template and the perfect content. But this ruse, if fallen into, simply sets you up for failure.
Designing with an organisation’s digital strategy, people, and skills in mind creates something scalable. A product which will learn and grow just like the organisation. That’s sustainable content design, and it’s marvelous.
Olivia is the UX Content Lead at Manifesto where she brings her experience in the public sector to solve complex content design and product-based challenges.