Beyond words: using content strategy for better UX

Web Directions would have to be my favourite Australian conference series. In 2018, I was honoured that John asked me to present at Web Directions Design. Here are my slides and speaker notes.

What do you think of when you hear the word content?

For many of us, thoughts immediately turn to words. After all, isn’t content the thing that’s going to replace the lorem ipsum, fill those wireframes, get the story across?

This has been one of the biggest challenges we content professionals faced. Content was seen as the thing that finishes things off. It came at the end of project. So much happened before content happened. User research happened, user experience happened, design happened, technology assessments happened. Content was always the last discipline at the table. The shoehorned afterthought.

Thankfully we have all matured in the way we see content. We’re now having content conversations earlier in the process. Teams are becoming more ‘content first’ – we go into projects with a much better idea of what content is needed to make our customers happy. And hopefully you’ve had the experience by now of working with a content strategist to help you audit, assess, plan and create your content.

Yet we still focus on the words – the editorial side of content strategy – when there’s so much more that content strategy can do to help you create a better user experience and ultimately a better product or service.

Today I want to explore some of these other elements of content strategy. I want you to walk away with some practical tools to have up your sleeve. Something to use in your next project.

I want to talk about empathy, content systems, and building the right team. So you have content that is appropriate, content that can scale, and content that is sustainable.

OK, let’s get into it.

You might have seen content strategy’s little red bible – Content Strategy for the Web by Kristina Halvorson and Melissa Rach. It has been one of the go-to resources to get your head around all the aspects of the discipline.

It broke content strategy up into 4 elements that supported a core strategy:

  • Substance – the content itself, what you needed to create to support your customers
  • Structure – the meta data, content model and templates you needed
  • People – the roles and responsibilities of the people involved in content
  • Process – the workflow to plan, create and maintain useful, usable content

At this year’s SXSW Kristina revisited this framework and made some changes to reflect the evolving nature of the field. She divided the functions of content strategy up into two domains.

  • Content design – using data and evidence to give the audience what they need, at the time they need it, and in a way they expect. This had two parts:
    • Editorial
    • Experience
  • System design – the process of defining the architecture, modules and data for a system to satisfy specified requirements. This also was divided into two parts:
    • Structure
    • Process

This breakdown reflects what I’m talking about today. We know that editorial is well taken care off, so let’s look at experience. Let’s look at embedding empathy in your content design.

Empathetic content

= content in the right tone that people can read and understand

We all know that empathy begins by putting yourself in other people’s shoes. I think from a content point of view this happens when you do a few different things.

The first is by producing content in the right tone. This is how we can show that we appreciate the context and emotion that people are experiencing when using our content. Choosing the right tone is a step to demonstrate that we care and understand.

The next is to create content that people can decode. Using words that people know makes content accessible.

Big words don’t make you look smart. They make you look inaccessible. But there’s more. Reading is part decoding or knowing the words, part comprehending what they mean in a particular context. It’s no use aiming for content that achieves a certain reading score if no one understands it. That’s why it’s also important to assess comprehension.

Take this paragraph from a life insurance letter. Keep in mind this is a letter someone would receive if they had claimed against – and have been refused – a life insurance policy. So someone close to this person has died. Do you think the tone is empathetic to the circumstance? I think it feels cold and impersonal, hardly what you want to read at a time when you might be grieving a loved one.

Now look at the words themselves. There’s nothing overly hard to read but would the average person understand ‘avoided’, ‘breach’, ‘duty of disclosure’ or ‘benefits’.

Probably not so overall, not an example of empathetic content.

Embed content in user research

So how do you avoid something like this? Start asking content questions at the start. Whether you are doing user research, mapping a customer journey or design a service, ask yourself:

  • Why is someone reading/viewing/listening to this content?
  • How might they be feeling when they are doing this?
  • What language and tone do we choose to make this content empathetic?

Show people sample content and get them to circle the phrases that make them think you ‘get’ them, or that makes them feel they could trust or feel confident in your product.

These questions will help guide the tone and language you choose.

Readability scores

Then use something like the Hemingway app to score the readability of your content.

You can cut and paste your text into the browser and it will highlight long sentences, poor word choice and general structure.

A note to say readability scores are definitely not perfect. Gobbledegook can still achieve good scores. But it is a useful guide and can point out overly complex sentences or better word alternatives.

Test comprehension

Now for the part that often gets forgotten – testing comprehension. Again, cloze tests are not perfect, but they are a good way to see if your content will be understood.

You simply choose a few paragraphs (about 130 words), remove every 6th word and get people to fill in the blanks. 60% or higher successful completion is seen as a good level of comprehension. They don’t all have to be keywords – the odd ‘the’ and ‘it’ is fine. It’s to see how people bring the words together and what they expect to read.

Would someone be able to get a high success rate when testing Facebook’s privacy pages? Perhaps not.

I’m sure if the insurance letter I showed you earlier was tested, no one would use the word ‘avoided’.

Finally, this is something interesting I saw the other day, so I haven’t used it – But I like the premise that it picks out gender favouring, polarising, race related, religion inconsiderate, or other unequal phrasing – things that we might not be aware of.

Once you’ve gone through this process, don’t forget to communicate with your content creators how to create empathetic content.

And the perfect place for this is your style guide, which of course is part of your content system.

Content systems

= infrastructure that enables people to use content the way they want

Quite a few presenters at this conference have or are going to touch on design systems – ways to scale design in an organisation by developing a collection of reusable components, guided by clear standards, that can be assembled together to build any number of applications.

Designs systems are important because we’re not just building a website anymore. We are creating interconnected experiences.

It’s the same for content.

We are past the point of thinking of content as static pages on a website. We are building eco-systems of content. Content that can be re-used, re-purposed and re-published across a number of channels.

People expect consistent content, and consistent experiences with content. When we dig in and peel back the layers of apps, sites, knowledge bases, intranets, CRMs, kiosks, chat bots, digital directories – and everything else – it doesn’t take long to realise that content is everywhere.

And as we delve even deeper, we have to figure out how content can be structured and stored so we can do all of these things with it.

As we begin to understand how people want to use the content, how they want to navigate it, filter it, categorise, we can build content systems that enables people to use content in they way they want.

Often the first place to start with this is by defining your content model.

You begin by looking at the common content types that you have in your content system and applying a standard structure to them.

For instance, when we look at this recipe we can see it follows a structure.

It has a title, an image, a list of ingredients and a method to follow.

But it doesn’t stop there. To really define this content type, we want to get into a little more detail. We want to know the quantity of ingredients, how many serves this recipe makes, if it’s a breakfast or a dinner, if there are any specific allergy considerations.

Structured content breaks content types down into smaller attributes that can be re-used and shared across systems. The trick is to define how granular you need to go. It’s easy to create a very complex content model, however this needs to be balanced by how it is going to be used.

For instance, you could probably get even more detailed in an ingredient list – but you need to determine the value of doing so.

We also saw that there were tags for these recipes to help people navigate and search through the site.

This is where taxonomy work comes in.

By developing a common taxonomy so that users can filter and search for content in the way that they want to use it.

This is how content strategy, UX and design work together.

We work together to understand how do our customers want to experience this content? What ways are we going to help them navigate and explore this content? What are they ways we want to serve this content to them?

A content strategist can help you define this language, looking across existing systems and researching using tools such as search logs, cards sorts and tree testing.

In summary, content systems are all about designing the infrastructure that lets your users experience the content they way they want to.

It can cover:

  • IA and navigation – how we should categorise information in a way that makes sense to the people using it
  • What meta data do we need to help content be accessible and searchable
  • How we might structure and store content
  • How content gets prioritised
  • How we label and tag content
  • And how do we set the people creating content up for success within the content management system

Great teams

= processes and culture that enable smart content decisions

Because people are important. I’ve always said that content is easy – people are the messy part.

Why? Well, content is a deeply personal affair. Even when you have been part of a project that has come in and helped clean up something really messy, you have to realise that at some point in time, someone took the time to create it. And very few people deliberately turn up to work to do a bad job.

We have to ensure that the shiny new digital experience doesn’t biodegrade as soon as the project team moves on. We need to equip teams to make smart content decisions in the long term – because big digital projects often result in new roles and responsibilities, a demand for new skills and a change in business processes.

There are a few things to look at to build better teams.

Roles and responsibilities

  • Sounds pretty obvious, but you need to look at who does what when it comes to content. This includes the strategic decision making around content and the day to day content creation.
  • Who is the custodian for navigation, meta data and the content model?
  • Who can publish content on the home page?
  • Who ensures that content is tested with users?

Approvals and workflows

  • Is there the opportunity to embed content people in cross functional teams?

Training and skills development

  • With the rise of AI, chat bots, omni channel content – how do we ensure our content teams have the skills required?
  • How do we keep them excited about the role that content plays in the user experience?

Recruitment and team structure

  • Does the transition to business as usual have implications for the team?
  • Can we support some of the new roles emerging? The UX writer? The UX content strategist? The content designer?


So the next time you hear the word content, I don’t want you to just think about editorial.

I want you to think about how you are going to make your content more empathetic, what content systems you need to enable people to use your content the way they want, and how are you going to support your teams? This will help you create a better user experience.