Content first

In which I expand (quite a lot!) on the “Content” bit of my post about the UX iceberg, and explain why I think it is important to put content first. I’m not saying anything new, and I do refer to the EBI content a lot, but I hope you can abstract this, and apply it to your situation. On the other hand, if you’re at the EBI, this is just up your street!

This is, as I say, quite a long post. You might want to get a cup of coffee!

Look after your content, and it will look after you

Whether you are designing a website from scratch, or you’re tweaking, refining (even redesigning!) an existing site, the first thing you need to consider is your content. It is no exaggeration to say that good content is the foundation on which your website it built. Donna Spencer neatly expresses this:

“Content shouldn’t be treated as an afterthought, or something to be “poured” into the website. Content is the website.”

Valuable, credible content is why your users visit your site, isn’t it? But getting a handle on all this content (because, let’s face it, there’s a lot of it on the average website) is not so easy.

As Colleen Jones wrote in a recent Smashing Magazine article,

“The real solution to the content problem is hard work that demands change in your (or your company’s) approach to planning, designing and developing interactive experiences.”

As part of the big redesign project I’m involved in, I am working with my team to make sure that we know our website’s content. We are focusing on pages of more-or-less static content; informational pages, while some of our colleagues are exploring the huge information space that is the data to which the EBI gives access (that’s no mean feat, either! Exciting things happening there).

I also have a vested interest in getting a handle on this content, since I am part of the web team who will be ultimately be responsible for migrating all the essential content from these static pages to a content management system.

Before we do anything, we need to know what we’ve got.

Content inventory and audit

What have we got? How is it joined together? What is it for? Who’s responsible for it? Is it obsolete or redundant?

Without a list to go through, we can’t hope to answer any of these questions. Recently, I have been taking the first steps in finding out exactly what content we’re dealing with, and just how much it is. On smaller websites, it is perfectly feasible to go through the content manually, and come up with an inventory. I have done this in the past, even to the extent of being able to put individual content on post-its, and mapping out their structure (we’ll get to information architecture later).

But right now, we’re dealing with a website that has hundreds and hundreds of static (i.e. .html) web pages, and I couldn’t face going through that manually.

Happily, one of my colleagues works on the EBI search engine. He and his team-mates regularly “crawl” the website, and index the content. He has been able to write some custom scripts that allow him to dig around in those data (the indexed content), and extract a view of the content. Fantastic.

What’s more, this is also going to allow me to see the existing information architecture of the site – how the content is structured. Still, we’re not onto information architecture yet!

The raw output looks something like this:

Screenshot of crawler data

Nice, huh? My colleague has been able to break it down into chunks, for example, everything in the hierarchy underneath “/Information”. This makes things rather more manageable, but now we need to look at content analysis, where we can qualify some of that content in a bit more detail.

There is probably too much content to do a complete analysis. Instead, we are analysing down to a certain depth in a hierarchy (decided on a largely case-by-case basis), and grouping some other things, i.e. “this is a directory full of PDFs from 2006”.

This is being done in a spread sheet, and looks something like this:

Screenshot of content analysis spreadsheet

As I mentioned already, an important extra benefit of this work is to help us when it comes to the transition from a static website, to one that will exist in a content management system (CMS), in our case, Drupal. A core feature of Drupal is that it can organise your content by “types”; things like “event”, “news article”, “page”, etc. Being able to visualise all the content we have on the website will allow us to figure out what content types we will need to plan for, and how to manage them.

Of course, using a CMS is no magic bullet. By itself, it won’t make a website a wonder of content provision. We will need a responsive content strategy, backed up by editorial standards, if we want to keep the content relevant, useful and usable.

In fact, what I hope is that this kind of content analysis (auditing, at least) will be come part of our editorial process. Pieces of content have life cycles and revision cycles, and if we make analysis a regular activity, then we won’t have to perform a gargantuan process every few years! The CMS is just a tool; we need the process to really make the content work.

Setting standards

Some of the desired outcomes of the content analysis are that we trim down the content to what we want to keep, we identify content that needs to be improved or updated, and we start to build a picture of how to migrate that content into our CMS.

While we assess the content, we need to keep in mind editorial standards that we should apply. This is something that our colleagues in EMBL and in the Outreach section of the EBI can help us with, I think. While the structural and visual elements of the EBI website are critical, and can help us to achieve the consistency and coherency we are striving for, we also need to look at how we write the content.

What voice do our content providers write with? What styleguide to they follow? In a subtle way, using editorial standards in this way can help us to emphasise the personality of the EBI (stick with me here!). Sure, we’re not selling a product, but we do want to continue to highlight our position as a credible and respected world-leader in the field of bioinformatics.

Just like the interactive services and tools we provide, this content needs to be designed to meet the needs of its consumers. I started working with Jenny Cham just recently on producing personas for this project. I’d like to see us using those personas to drive content design, just as much as we will use them to design the structure, navigation and appearance later on.

Cross-channel strategy

In terms of content putting content first, I think what I am aiming for is some sort of cross-channel content strategy. Actually, I suspect what I am thinking of is more like cross-channel UX design, with our content [strategy] being the foundation on which we base good UX.

What am I talking about?

Well, let’s look at content strategy for a moment. There are a lot of very skilful, very active people [1] who have really helped to raise the profile of “content strategy” recently. I don’t think I’d heard the phrase before 2 or 3 years ago, but it has of course been around a lot longer. It’s all about getting the right content in front of the right users at the right time, rather than simply providing something and hoping it’s the right thing.

Content strategy - analysis, editorial, architecture - Colleen Jones

There is an awful lot of good stuff out there by way of videos, blog posts and presentations about content strategy, produced by people a whole lot more experienced than me. If you’re interested in user experience, I highly recommend exploring the topic.

And then this “cross-channel” thing? Nothing to do with ferries to France. What I am talking about here is the idea that while our various users see “the EBI” as one thing, they are actually interacting with us via a number of channels. There is the website, and its attendant services and tools, of course, but there are others: printed material like academic publications, brochures, factsheets and reports; face-to-face situations like training sessions and outreach events; feedback systems for support and help; phonecalls, too.

One of the talks at UXLx this year that I particularly enjoyed was given by Nick Finck, in which he described this cross-channel ecosystem in which many businesses exist. Again, the focus was probably on commerce, but many of the concepts apply equally well to the content, data and services that the EBI provide, I think.

My sketchnotes form Nick Finck's UXLx 2011 talk, "The Cross-Channel Experience"Earlier this week, the mighty Peter Morville also published a presentation on cross-channel strategy. This does a great job of illustrating the topic, too. In it, Peter explores in depth some of the ways that certain businesses achieve success by having cross-channel strategy. An example that he touches on, and that the one-and-only Don Norman also mentioned recently at the rather excellent dConstruct conference, is Apple iTunes.

I have an iPod. Possibly you do, too. I bought my iPod in an Apple Store, and I’ve since bought and downloaded music via iTunes. Hey, I’ve even bought music via the iPod itself, and downloaded it immediately.

This is a ross-channel experience:

  • the physical object itself;
  • the face-to-face customer experience;
  • the remote customer experience (having the receipt emailed to me);
  • using software, either on the iPod or on a desktop machine, to access a ton of music, and being able to buy and download it, there and then.

One of the reasons that I am amongst millions of people who have done the same is because of the way that whole system is designed. OK, so the iTunes software isn’t fab, but the whole experience of using my iPod in this easy, joined-up way is why I like it more than my Sony MP3 player (which had *much* better audio!). Don refers to this as being good “systems thinking”, and it is, I think, another example of good cross-channel experience design.

Sorry, I digress.

Supporting user goals and delivering the right content

In terms of content, I think that this means we should try to achieve balance across these different channels. That means that the “personality” that we project through how our content is written and delivered should be consistent. We should try to put ourselves in a position where we can adapt our content strategy to the needs of our audience (our users), thus supporting their top tasks.

Perhaps we should think about how we could re-use content from different sources in different locations, so that we present a joined-up story. An example might be that we use the same copy (text) to describe the EBI on the EBI website, in brochures, and on its WikiPedia entry. Just a thought.

There are a number of people at the EBI who have embraced social media platforms like Twitter, which can offer great opportunities for close contact with our users, if used cleverly. It is because of this that I am really happy that we will have Nicola Osborne as our next EBI Interfaces speaker, when she will talk about science and social media.

One thing that social media can provide is a way to meet the users half-way, as it were. To go to where they are, and listen to them, rather having a content strategy which relies on them coming to us and working out how to find what they want. It’s a really interesting area that I know other people are beginning to explore.

If we consider our content first, then we build for ourselves a solid foundation on which to serve the needs of our users, and do so through a range of channels. Yes, this goes beyond thinking about only the website, but so does the experience of the EBI that our users have.

[1] Including, but not limited to, Karen McGrane, Kristina Halvorson, Leen Jones, Erin Kissane, Des Traynor, Rahel Anne Bailie, Gerry McGovern, Cory-Ann Joseph, Elisabeth McGuane… the list goes on.


3 thoughts on “Content first

  1. DJ says:

    Hi Francis
    Interesting post and blog overall. It sounds like you have swallowed the Content Strategy kool aid in one gulp 🙂
    I would be interested to read your comments on my own post on the topic – right over here.
    Yeah, it’s a bit ranty and all that, but blogs are for self-expression right?

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