Content strategy in UX – beyond the wireframe

Why worry about the content?

As UX professionals, one of our most common deliverables is the humble wireframe. The wireframe is a great way of specifying the layout and interactions of a digital product. It allows you to fine tune and test things early in the design lifecycle, avoiding costly mistakes. 

But, have you ever handed over wireframes to a client or developer, only to find that the site that was built was nothing like you’d envisaged? Or, have you revisited a site a couple of years down the line to find it unrecognisable? 

Often these issues arise because content is not properly specified and planned for. Most UX professionals have been guilty at one time or another of handing over wireframes with placeholders for images and lorem ipsum text. 

Imagine if we designed a t-shirt using that type of wireframe…

Tshirt with "funny slogan!" under a blank box

Figure 1: A wireframe for a t-shirt

In this case, it is really easy to see how things could go wrong. The wrong type of image could be chosen – one that isn’t funny or that is inappropriate to the organisation creating the t-shirt. The image could quickly become dated. The slogan could be offensive or easily misunderstood. And so on.

There are many ways in which the t-shirt’s “content” could ruin the design that was so carefully laid out in the wireframe. To get it right, the wireframe should be accompanied by clear guidance on planning, creating and managing the content. In an ideal world, this should take the form of a content strategy. 

So what is a content strategy?

To keep this simple, I’m going to use the excellent “quad” diagram from Brain Traffic as a starting point. They specify four aspects of a successful content strategy:

  • Substance;
  • Structure;
  • Governance;
  • Workflow.

The substance of the content identifies the kind of content needed, including the topics, type of content, messages, tone of voice and so on. The structure of the content defines how it is delivered, formatted and displayed. This can include tagging strategies, taxonomy, IA, cross-linking strategies and so on. Both of these aspects should be pretty familiar to anyone from a UX or design background. 

The part that is less familiar is the governance and workflow. This is about defining a content lifecycle that is tailored for a particular organisation. This helps ensure that content is correctly planned for and managed from the outset. The content strategy should also define the various roles and responsibilities for each of the activities within the content lifecycle. This may be based upon existing roles or may require some change and reorganisation. 

There are entire books written describing how to create a great content strategy, so I am going to focus here on the workflow and governance side of things. What are some of the essentials to understand and consider within a UX design project? 

The content lifecycle

Cycle with plan, create and manage linked

Figure 2: The content lifecycle

Our view of the content lifecycle is pretty simple. You need to plan for how to deliver the right type of content in the right place at the right time. You need to create the content and then manage it – promoting it, reviewing it, measuring its performance and so on. There is much more involved than simply writing the content and creating the visuals!

Plan: Planning content can include a wide range of activities depending on the scope of the project. At the very least, this would involve identifying key themes and messages, brainstorming ideas for content, creating an editorial calendar (what will be published when?), identifying the contributors and commissioning them to create the content. 

Create: Content creation may require subject matter experts to be interviewed by a copywriter – often the people with the specialist knowledge are not best placed to actually write about it themselves. The content then needs to be drafted, proof-read, edited and approved before being published. 

Manage: Once the content is “live”, it requires careful management. The content should be promoted – often using social media, which means that any responses or comments must also be managed. On a regular basis, content should be reviewed to determine what should be culled, what should be kept and what should be refreshed or updated. Analytics and other measures can be used as part of this assessment of how well content is performing.

Who does what?

The obvious person involved in creating content is a copywriter (for written content at least). But to support the full content lifecycle and produce truly great content, you will need more than just a writer. 

Some of the other roles that may be required (and that should be planned for accordingly) are:

  • An editor. The editor is generally the person who oversees the content process. They will be responsible for generating ideas, creating an editorial calendar, commissioning content, approving content and reviewing live content to determine whether to retire or update it;
  • A marketing manager. This person usually checks that content and content plans fit within the overall marketing strategy. They will also be responsible for promoting content and for monitoring its performance;
  • Subject matter experts. These people have the detailed knowledge which will help to inform the content;
  • Designers, photographers, etc. A range of different people may be involved in content creation depending on the type of content created – infographics, videos, photos and so on. 

It is important to note that these are roles that may be just part of someone’s job in a small business or that may require a team of people in a larger organisation. Making sure that the right people are involved from the outset is essential to ensuring that the correct content will be created to fill those wireframes. 

How long does it all take?

Hopefully, it is now clear that creating content involves more than hiring a copywriter to do some writing. There are lots of different activities and roles involved. All of this takes time which must be budgeted for properly within project planning. 

You can do some quick estimates to help give an idea of how long the basic content creation process will take. Start by thinking about how many pages of content are needed and what is required for each page. For example, you may have 100 product pages, each needing three photos and a 100 word description. 

Then think about how long is needed. How long will each photograph take to shoot and edit? How long will the content take to write? How long will it take the editor to proof-read and edit each page? How much time does it take to approve and upload each page within the CMS?

You can see how things quickly multiply. If sufficient time is not allowed then, without doubt, you will end up with sub-par content. Make sure that this time is estimated (even roughly) at the outset and built into the plan. Set expectations accordingly. 

In summary…

Hopefully, it’s clear why wireframes alone are not enough to create a great site or app. The content is as important – get it wrong and the site will inevitably fail no matter what great interactions you’ve designed. Thinking about and planning for all aspects of the content lifecycle from the outset will help both you and your clients to avoid this potential pitfall.

This article is based on a workshop that Juliet ran at UX Bristol in July with Sophie Dennis: Content strategy - Beyond the wireframe (Slideshare)

For more information about our strategic services, please see www.nomensa.com/work/strategy