Content strategy brick wall, taken in Bath, UK

Published on August 10th, 2015 | by Rahel Bailie


Intelligent content and user experience

Content. The lifeblood of how we communicate with our customers and potential customer, with our colleagues and, increasingly, with our friends. We are immersed in content daily, yet a lot of aspects of it remain misunderstood. This is particularly apparent in areas where content is expected to perform in a business context.

Content completes user experience

Content is the single biggest contributor to a successful user experience. Now, customer experience and user experience designers, software developers, and usability professionals will undoubtedly disagree, and hasty reassurance is offered to assert that all aspects are equally important to a successful user experience. However, we can’t deny the importance that content makes in helping readers and viewers understand our products, our stories, and our brands. An early chapter of Content Strategy: Connecting the dots between business, brand, and benefits begins with the assertion: “The elegance of a user experience is negated if the content at the end of their search is outdated, missing, or outright wrong. It’s like going on a treasure hunt. Even a five-year-old will tell you that if there’s no treasure inside the chest at the end of the hunt, the whole treasure hunt sucks. Simple (and brutal) as that.” (For a humorous depiction of how adults react to the lack of treasure at the end of a hunt, watch The Scavenger Vortex episode of The Big Bang Theory.)

Designs and transactions only take a user so far before there needs to be some content to guide towards a choice, to make a buying decision, to understand how to use a product, to understand an interest rate, to figure out how to complete an application. At some point, the rest of the elements become “supporting actors” standing by while content take centre stage.

The many aspects of content

When we say “content”, many people think of long-form writing, but in reality, content is far more complex and far-reaching than customer experience and user experience designers, software developers, and usability professionals and, well everyone except seriously experienced content professionals – really think about. There is content used for persuasive purposes (marketing blurbs, white papers, specification sheets, product descriptions, and so on), content used for instructional purposes (specification sheets, product descriptions, confirmation emails, knowledge bases, user assistance, and so on), embedded content (phrases in Web and mobile UIs (user interfaces), phrases on wearable device UIs, labels on form fields, icons and images and their alt text), translations of all these, and this is only the beginning. The amount of content quickly becomes staggering. Think about product manufacturers with a number of product lines – from electric toothbrushes to automobiles. There will be many bits of content that get used in a number of products, and in a number of different supporting information: a brochure, a web site, instructions for use, a support site. The following figure demonstrates how four bits of content (which could represent a set of instructions, a paragraph, a sentence, or something as small as a label on a button) can proliferate across a body of content.

4 pieces of content used in 4 products lines, in 4 products in each line, in 4 outputs

In this case, 1 piece of content multiplies by 84 instances, for a total of 340 uses. And that’s before we add variants by audience variant or translate into various languages. The old-school way of dealing with this is to cut and paste, or create anew, or arbitrarily changed the content for different output channels or, as a former client did, use a hybrid of all three methods. Their method was to have technical writers create user assistance content that would be used in help files, and in the interface as tool tips and embedded assistance (those little hints that help you complete a task), as shown here.

Note: The following screen shot is not from the aforementioned former client, but simply being used as an example.

Example of embedded asssitance - the words email address in the field itself


Then, the client would go through and change the content for the training material. “Click the Subscribe button” to something like “Press the link in the Subscription area”. Then, the staff in the support centre, not having access to the original content, would write their own content. Because they were all from a development background, and all were English-as-a-second-language speakers, the quality of the written content varied widely. Most times, they got the important nouns right, but the syntax and explanations left a fair bit to be desired. Not to mention that there were three different groups (four, if you counted the UX people and/or developers who wrote the field label and other UI text) spending time creating content that could have been re-used.

The strategy used by training group was particularly perplexing. Why would you change content, deliberating obfuscating meaning and confusing the users? The training group explained this was because they sold their training material, and wanted to create the illusion of value (their words). One would think that a better strategy would be to re-use the content, keeping the terminology consistent, and re-allocate the time spent on trying to game the system to providing value-add content such as instructional videos.

Think big about content: getting out the weeds

This connects to an interesting discussion currently happening amongst content professionals, about whether content automation supports creativity in content or whether automation hinders creativity. One argument against the practice of content re-use is that the content must be changed for different audiences. Another argument is all content has to work for all channels. The problem with these arguments is that they use a very narrow view of content, and have a very narrow of view of content re-use. It’s tempting to go down a rabbit hole to refute these arguments, but it’s more productive to simply say that it’s time to think bigger about content and its potential. One of the questions posed in the debate was whether there were examples of companies successfully re-using content across channels. Like good design, when content is done well, it isn’t noticed; it “just works”. The fact that many organisations are successfully automating content delivery, and consumers aren’t noticing is a testament to the fact that it works. These companies don’t see the need to announce how they manage their content, just as they don’t see the need to announce that they use Photoshop to edit their images. They may present their successes at a conference, but much like the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon, you don’t really understand what you’re seeing until you’ve really learned what it’s about. Once you understand the mechanics behind it, you start to see examples everywhere.

Intelligent content makes user experience better

How content automation happens within a Web CMS – re-using content in multiple places on a website or mobile site, is on the very bottom rung of the content automation ladder. At the top of the ladder is having the ability to to automate content in a way that customises it for every need, from a single body of content. There are multiple stages in between, but there is a common theme. Content shouldn’t be used like a brick, where the content must get used in its entirety. Instead, content should be broken down into a series of building blocks that can be assembled in different ways to create unique outputs. Unique outputs could mean outputs for different markets, different audiences within those markets, different media (text, images, audio, video, multimedia) and different output media or channels – print, web, mobile, social, product interfaces. Then, coordinating it with different languages, and the markets in those languages, and the audiences within those segments. Generating these outputs should be automated, to reduce the amount of time a person spends on the rote task of writing, combining, checking, and so on.

This is called intelligent content. It means creating building blocks of content (content objects) that have been given meaning, by being tagged and structured so that computers can understand how to process those content objects. This allows content to be re-ordered, re-used, and otherwise manipulated so that you need less content to fulfill more needs, in an extremely agile way. The technical side of intelligent content supports the user experience side. It allows the content to be even better, more tailored, more relevant to readers and viewers. It affects how easily communicators and UX people adapt content to different channels, for different audiences.

Automating processes for more time for creativity

Many marketers are anxious to adopt content processes that would allow them to get more impact from a smaller body of content through the power of automation. Once they understand – truly understand, not just assume they understand because of past experience with a low-end CMS like WordPress – the power of intelligent content, they recognise the potential for coordinating all of the bits that are otherwise a huge time suck. They want to reclaim the time otherwise wasted on searching for, editing, copy-and-pasting, re-editing, formatting, fixing, and otherwise manipulating content. They want to use that time to work on new content, and they want the automation aspect to better deliver content to the right audience at the right time. They want to spend their time on the small percentage of content that can’t be automated, and let technology take care of the large percentage that can lend itself to automation.

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About the Author

Rahel Anne Bailie is a synthesizer of content strategy, requirements analysis, information architecture, and content management to increase the ROI of content. She has consulted for clients in a range of industries, and on several continents, whose aim is to better leverage their content as business assets. Founder of Intentional Design, she is now the Chief Knowledge Officer of London-based Scroll. She is a Fellow of the Society for Technical Communication, she has worked in the content business for over two decades. She is co-author of Content Strategy: Connecting the dots between business, brand, and benefits, and co-editor of The Language of Content Strategy, and is working on her third content strategy book,

One Response to Intelligent content and user experience

  1. Kathryn Poe says:

    The section on reuse of content for Training struck me like a bullet. Having worked on both sides of the fence, both Technical Communication and Training, there is occasionally an animosity I find perplexing. Because Content Management is regarded as a “Tech Com approach” some folks in training dismiss it outright for no other reason. Training is still Technical Communication so I’ve never understood that mindset.

    As usual Rahel hit the nail on the head here.

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