article28.09.20225 minutes

"Why Digital Content Shouldn’t be an Afterthought"

  • Strategy

Stéphanie Mercier is a member of the Digital Strategy team at nventive. Leading up to this, she has spent the 8 years in roles as a Customer Journey owner and Product Manager and 10 as a freelance writer. She has a master’s degree in business administration, a B.A. in French Literature, and firmly believes that creativity and business can happily coexist and spark great ideas.

The Staying Power of Lorem ipsum

I started working in the digital space in the era of static and informational websites (basically pre-dinosaur). Even though text was supposed to be the main attraction of the site, it often seemed like an afterthought, boring white rice on the backburner, second fiddle to the design. Consequently, lorem ipsum text often stayed put on the layout and design until the very last second, until that short in-between phase after the design is done and before development. Until everyone scrambles (everyone = me back then) to deliver copy.

In today’s world of multifunctional, multi-platform and more technical with algorithms, APIs, keyword search… We realize more than ever that planning how content lives and breathes not only applies to organizing pages for text-heavy websites, but to any digital experience, from a quick online booking module to a complex business process management system. How it is structured impacts every aspect of the product from the interface to backend engines and connectors.

Content can make or break your marketing conversion targets or taint users’ opinion of your brand. Competition is heavy on digital, and users don’t always give second chances. In this context, implementing a content strategy up front becomes more important than ever.

The Role of Content when we “Make Things More User-Friendly”

Before we go any further, let’s stop for a second: when we use the term content, what exactly are we talking about? I dug up this perfectly imprecise definition from the archives of the site “Content not only includes the words on the page but also the images and multimedia that are used.” Content strategy, as one of the core areas of the user experience is having well-structured content that is easy to find.

Defining a content strategy starts when a project’s business objectives are formulated. What are we building and why? How will our customers benefit from this solution? If I am adding self-serve or transactional capabilities to my app, for example, the added features will help dictate the main themes, sections and high-level content structure that will cover the users’ needs and then trickles down to details like wayfinding text, labels, calls to action, details, articles and all the nooks and crannies in between.

During the product conception phase, product managers, strategists and designers can benchmark similar experiences to be inspired and leverage how features and associated content are presented to the users. The benefits of this are two-fold: relying on established mental models creates familiarity and facilitates ease of use, thinking of how the content structure and main themes support the user experience create the conditions for success.

Taking a Step Back to See the Details

Having a view on the holistic customer journey enables us to understand the customer’s point of view and where touchpoints are needed to successfully engage them on digital platforms. If I had things my way, mapping journeys would be included in every project’s Discovery phase. This methodology not only opens our eyes to new opportunities, but it can also reduce the occurrence of potential pain points in the experience, and prevent slippage to a more costly service channel, or worse, a competitor.

In keeping with our self-serve example, and informed by the customer journey map, we reconfirm our initial design assumptions from the conception phase. In doing so, we secure our user’s journey by adding tidbits of information and confirmations at the right moments, and so on.

Clear concise messaging comes into play in these contexts, but so does consistent wording and terminology. Copywriting will come later, but is the team well prepared to tackle the task? Ensuring they have brand guidelines that incorporate a voice and tone section, a lexicon or naming convention will streamline the experience for both content creators and consumers.

Rules and Legal Stuff

Privacy and consumer laws, industry specific norms, Apple and Google Store review guidelines, language laws, accessibility norms… some of these require specific content to be displayed to our customer at key moments during the navigation or sales funnel. Knowing the rules beforehand can make or break a project. Getting to this early is important so requirements can be added into the product backlog from the get-go (and not as super high priority urgent or else we can’t launch change requests).

Future-Proofing the Content

The first iteration of the content may be an MVP, but who doesn’t have the ambition to grow? This could mean syndicating product description content via an API, putting in place a CMS or adding more progressive features like a keyword search, a recommendation engine or a chatbot. For this type of situation, consider enlisting the help of an Information Architect. They can help create a robust content structure and taxonomy in which pieces can be repurposed within different contexts without needing to be duplicated or rewritten.

“We Can Just Re-Use What We Already Have” …. Hmmm… Are you Sure?

At this point, most organizations are not building systems, sites and platforms that are brand new, they are revamping the obsolete or adding functionalities on top. It’s tempting to copy-paste and recycle existing text in these cases, but it’s rarely a good idea.

The old content may no longer be relevant, it could be a source of friction (do you really want to reproduce those cryptic error messages?), it may not be optimized according to accessibility or SEO guidelines. Long sentences that may work on desktop will probably look wonky and weird on mobile. Sometimes even phrasing and terminology don’t survive the test of time.

To avoid last minute scrambling, conduct a content audit to determine what you want to keep, rework, or discard and which new content needs to be added. That will also help you plan your resources time and effort.

Design and Content Strategy Go Hand in Hand

Designing anything digital without having at least an inkling of consideration for the content in place is, in my view, fixing oneself up for a headache (and an added scope creep) down the line. Setting the appropriate content milestones for each project should be part of the assessment in the early phases to design the best overall user experience. The content strategy is not an afterthought to product definition, it is integral part of the usability, design and interaction concepts that play an essential role in a positive user experience.

Of course, after we launch, the real work starts! Digital content is not a static object left to be abandoned under a pile of dust, it is more akin to nurturing a large houseplant… it needs love and nourishment. On a day-to-day basis, this means measuring clicks, scrolls and conversion rates; user testing alternatives to titles, wayfinding text, labels, calls to action, cutting; adding, re-organizing, updating, and adapting articles or instructions. Basically, water and sunshine so your content can grow branches.