Embrace content strategy: throw out your design process

The way most web teams are structured makes it impossible to practice content strategy. Agency or in-house, big or small, it doesn’t matter. If your lack of content strategy is hurting the user experience, it’s time to throw out your design process and start over. You have nothing to lose but your bureaucracy.

The web isn’t print, advertising, or software.

You got the memo years ago: the web isn’t print, advertising, or software. So why are so many web teams set up like it’s 1999? Here are three workflows that are alive and well (in London, at least).

First, the print design model, based on annual reports and brochures. Someone designs something, someone writes something, there are a few rounds of feedback and corrections. The client “signs off”, it goes to print, and it’s done. This process works for an annual report which nobody’s ever going to read (it’s about the shiny paper, right?) but only a mad person would use it for web design. You’d think.

Then there’s the advertising model. A man whose initials are on the front door comes up with a catchy strapline that would make a great 30 second TV commercial. Then it’s, “let’s make this a website!”, as they fly in a project manager
to draw a linear Gantt chart with “copy” slotted in at the end. It’s entirely campaign focused. Nobody expects people to visit this “website” after launch day.

Third, the software “waterfall” method. The platonic form of the website’s features is passed down on stone tablets by monks who just know what’s best. (Agile won’t solve your content strategy problems, of course, but the waterfall has to go.)

These models are completely inappropriate for web or user experience design. It’s impossible to practice content strategy in this context.

Start with publishing.

Throw these processes out. Start with publishing, and then add what you need to make the project work. Research, user-centered design, agile: whatever it takes.

Tiffani Jones wrote about this topic in “Toward a Content-Driven Design Process”:

One of the biggest and best side effects of content strategy’s activism is that it’s encouraging agencies to reorder their design process. It’s no longer: discovery, information architecture, design, templates and development.

Instead, we’re doing: content strategy, information architecture, web writing, content production, design, templates and development—or some version of this.

The important thing is, we’re starting to think about content, early on.

It’s worth celebrating the early signs of content strategy taking root within web design teams. But a common question from web people learning about content strategy is, “how can I make clients pay for this?” The honest answer involves throwing out your design process, hiring more content people, repositioning your offering as strategic rather than tactical, rethinking your billing model, challenging your clients rather than offering them “solutions”, and generally ruffling a lot of feathers.

Embracing content strategy is about the web industry growing up. We’ve been happily distracting ourselves from the scary, messy reality of web strategy, governance, and content by focusing on tactics, features, and techniques. If we want to fix the broken user experiences that result, we need to make some difficult changes. If you’re up for that, you’ll prosper. “She’ll be right,” as they say in Oz. Throwing out your design process is just the first step.

Content Strategy Forum 2010: the wrap-up

I thought the Content Strategy Forum would be good. It completely blew me away. I’m only just recovering now.

I think we might be onto something with this content strategy thing, people.
And that isn’t the French wine speaking.

Bloody good wine, though. And two-hour, sit-down lunches with wait-staff who put
us to shame with their elegance. Wow. Need to go to more conferences in France.

Here’s a wrap-up of the presentations I attended:

  • The masterfully-chosen exercises in Karen McGrane and Rachel Lovinger’s “Content Analysis” workshop required us to analyze content on a real website using apparently straightforward criteria. It wasn’t until we actually started that I realized that analysis is impossible without an understanding of business goals. We couldn’t produce anything meaningful without backing up into strategy. Genius. (Extra points for picking on my favorite website to hate: Cisco.com.)
  • Rahel Bailie’s keynote described a repeatable system for managing content’s entire lifecycle. Bailie sees content strategy as a key element of user experience, noting that a broken experience is the fastest way to deter confidence.
  • Sylvie Daumal offered insight into pan-European web projects run like global advertising campaigns, often in direct competition with local teams working for the same organization. According to Daumal, user-centered design techniques haven’t had much impact in Europe. I wonder whether that might change soon.
  • In her keynote, Kristina Halvorson shared her story of transformation from web writer to content strategy advocate. She urged everyone in the room to bravely face
    the conflict that’s bound to arise when we advocate organizational change.
    Halvorson is onto something. The time’s right for some serious change-making. Let’s make it a content strategy party.
  • Colleen Jones presented a thorough, rational approach to content analysis, backed by solid business strategy. I aspire to one day have Jones’ calm, authoritative demeanor when dealing with such a thorny issue.
  • Sarah Cancilla shared her experiences working on content strategy for Facebook’s 5 billion pieces of content per week. (Read that again.) Cancilla outlined a strategy for selling content strategy to an engineering- and design-focused organization in which everyone already has a stake in content. Favorite quote: “apply content strategy to your content strategy”. Inspirational.

A massive “merci” to Destry Wion and STC France for organizing this breakthrough event.