Assessing Your User-Centered Content Strategy

Here are three important questions to ask yourself when moving toward a more user-centered content strategy.

“Our web content isn’t focused on user needs and interests.” Don’t worry. You’re not alone. Stakeholders are understandably inclined toward talking about themselves and their own interests. Marketers know the product, so they write about its features (as opposed to benefits to users). Developers know all kinds of technical jargon, so they write notifications and error messages that only make sense to other developers. SEO folks know what search engines like, so they write things for robots to read, rather than people.

People write what they know. If you want your content to be more user-centered, an obvious solution presents itself. You can probably guess.

Yes! You need to know your users. And you need to help the people you work with to know them, too.

As you move towards more user-centered content, you’ll need to consider three important questions:

  1. Who are our users?
  2. What do we know about them?
  3. How do we represent that knowledge?

The further along you are in your journey towards user-centered content, the more complex your answers to these questions will be. Let’s take a look at each in turn.

Who are our users?

This question tends to reveal a mess of assumptions, mystery, and sometimes even conflict. Who are they … and who do you want them to be? Are those groups the same or different? Does everyone agree on who they are? Do you all talk about them in the same way and use the same words to describe them? Are some of them more important to your business than others? (Hint: yes.)

At a minimum, you’ll want to start building a common vocabulary for different audiences and types of users within your organization. This puts you in a better position to undertake critical content strategy activities like prioritizing the audiences for your various digital properties.

A big “a-ha!” moment for many companies happens when they realize that the users of their website are not necessarily the same as customers of their product or beneficiaries of their services. For instance, on a higher ed project, a client realized that while all of the content on a particular site was meant for students, the site itself was primarily being used by the parents of those students.

What do we know about them?

Many organizations think they’re talking about users when they’re really talking about demographics and markets. They don’t know facts about people, but rather statistics about groups. “Our users are professionals. They’re 34–49. They have 1.3 kids. Their combined household income is between $90,000 and $140,000.” Inspiring. I can picture them now. Or … wait, no, I can’t.

People are complex, and there’s lots to know about them, so you’ll want to trust your gut on what’s relevant from a content planning perspective. I break it down into four general facets:

  • Identity: The things that make them who they are. What are their names? Backstories? What affiliations do they have? What beliefs and principles are core to their identities?
  • Mindset: What they think and how they feel. Do they love you or loathe you (or could they not care less)? Are they excited or apprehensive about this task? What’s their technical or subject matter literacy? (Where identity is more fixed, mindset is more contextual.)
  • Needs: The stuff that drives them. What are they trying to accomplish? What are their pain points? What questions do they need answered? What are their motivations?
  • Behaviors: What they do. What leads them to your site? What paths do they follow? What habits and patterns do they lean on? What decisions do they make? What actions do they take?

I’m sure you can come up with many more questions for each of these facets (and maybe more facets of your own). Go for it! These distinctions are a starting place in assessing what you do (and don’t) know about your users.

How do we represent (and socialize) that knowledge?

It’s all well and good to know things about your users, but it’s not much use to the organization if it’s only in your head. Part of your job as a content strategist is to represent and socialize this knowledge – especially if no one else is doing it.

Don’t be intimidated by glossy case studies for massive experience mapping engagements, or those magazine-quality buyer personas full of ridiculous charts and graphs (Savvy Shopper Sarah is a 7 on the Buyer Confidence scale but only a 5.8 on the Confident Buyer scale). Rather than trying to take on some huge deliverable, start small and focus on integrating your knowledge into existing processes and documentation.

Look for opportunities to be user-centered in all of your existing content strategy work:

  • Can you include a persuasive quote from a user alongside some strategy recommendations? (You’ll need a collection of quotes!)
  • Are your content briefs asking requesters to identify a specific audience for the content from an established list? (You’ll need a list!)
  • Can you spend five minutes at the top of the meeting talking about your users’ top tasks before diving into brainstorming?
  • How about a one-hour workshop to develop an empathy map specific to your campaign idea to add depth and situational context to existing personas? (Your writers will love this, trust me.)

Keep going!

I hope that investigating these questions has given you lots of ideas about the strengths and gaps in your own journey toward being more user-centered with your content. After you’ve gone through the exercise once, I encourage you to try it again with an eye toward the future:

  1. Who are our users?
  2. What do we want to know about them?
  3. How will we represent that knowledge going forward?

Doing this will help you plan activities and choose tools to help you get there.

Reading List

If you’re ready to dive deep, this reading list (which inspired my Confab 2018 workshop on this topic) might help:

  • The User’s Journey by Donna Lichaw (about driving design with stories)
  • Mapping Experiences by Jim Kalbach (well-structured breakdown of various mapping and alignment tools)
  • User Story Mapping by Jeff Patton (a deep-dive on one specific methodology with lots of great anecdotes about planning and alignment in general)
  • Just Enough Research by Erika Hall (you can’t focus on users if you don’t know anything about them!)
  • Content Design by Sarah Richards (especially for the breakdown of user stories and job stories)
  • Don’t Make Me Think by Steve Krug (introduces the Goodwill Meter and many other useful concepts for seeing the world the way your users do)
  • Mental Models by Indi Young (a robust methodology for understanding the needs and motivations of your users)

Scott Kubie is the Lead Content Strategist at Brain Traffic and author of Writing for Designers.

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