SDinGov: Content as a Product

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Author information: Bonny Colville-Hyde , Product Director , Post information: , 6 min read ,
Related post categories: Digital products ,

In September I spoke at the 10th Service Design in Gov (SDinGov) conference in Edinburgh. My session was about ways organisations can approach their content with a product mindset, to improve its performance and the impact it has for the people using it.

Content doesn’t get the attention that it needs. For me, content is the heart of the internet and online experiences, and it matters more than technology. Within the world of content, words matter the most. They power how people look for information, understand it and take meaningful action. However, as an industry we often shift focus to technical solutions, platforms and interactions, placing greater importance on these over the words that we’re publishing.

Writing, content creation and content governance are all too often deprioritised, or left till last with an assumption that it's “easy” compared to building tech solutions. Making really good content that meets the needs of people takes a lot of effort and skill, and I believe benefits from product thinking.

Bonny at SDinGov
Left to right: Ellie, Bonny, Jesmond at SDinGov event

Content as a product

Content should be measured just like transactional journeys are. If we’re publishing information, we should know if it's doing its job, and if it isn’t we need to know so we can take action. It's not enough to publish content and hope for the best.

When we create transactional user journeys, it's established practice to optimise the journey over time with a test and learn approach. Yet all too often content (that can have epic life-changing information for people) gets published without any testing, and isn’t measured against any success criteria beyond pageviews. This doesn’t tell us anything about how good it is or if it was understood.

User centred content

Content must be planned and created with target users in mind: before you can create good content, you’ve got to understand what people need, what they’re looking for and what their next best step is in their journey. To do this you must align your content strategy with your product strategy. These should go hand in hand, and be centred on the people using your product (or website, whatever you want to call it) and the touchpoints they have.

I spent seven years working in user experience and product at a publishing company, where I lived and breathed measurable content publishing alongside brilliant editorial teams. It was here where I shifted my thinking around content creation, management and measurement as the scale we worked at was so vast. When you’re working on sites that have hundreds of thousands, or millions of pages, you have to adapt your approach to content to ensure it meets the needs of users at scale.

For smaller sized websites, with hundreds of pages, it's possible to manage them with bespoke approaches, where each page can be tailored to the needs of its specific audience. They can be tweaked and refined, and feedback about individual parts of the page can be gathered through user research and actioned to optimise how it works for people.

For larger sites though, where you might be dealing with millions of pages, you can’t rely on bespoke optimisation, it's not sustainable. To make decisions and make experiences better at scale, you need to understand the broad patterns of your user’s behaviour and needs, as well as finding ways to keep content relevant, up to date and not duplicated.

Micro versus macro approaches to understanding content requirements

Establishing content requirements takes a mix of approaches. I love using a selection of research methods to unearth the requirements people will say they have, and the ones they can’t or won’t share. When you use multiple research methods and triangulate your results, you build a richer, deeper understanding of what the requirements are and the context that drives them. This helps inform how you make and structure your content.

Looking at the behaviour of individuals alongside the mass behaviour of audience groups will give you a breadth of insight. This knowledge will help you to make a case for changes to both your product, and content strategy too.

The “Micro” -

The details of what and how individuals are looking for and using content, and the context in which they are doing it. Gathered through activities like depth interviews, usability tests, diary studies, ethnographic research, call centre listening, and social media or forum listening.

And the “Macro” -

The scaled behaviour of what groups of people are doing, how big those groups are, and what behaviours differentiate them. Gathered through analytics tracking, search logs, and Google Search Console. Build out audience segments to help prioritise your activities based on your user group’s behaviour at scale.

It's hard to make decisions and prioritise activity if you don’t understand both the micro and the macro behaviour and requirements. And it's really hard to tell compelling stories about why you’re doing things if you don’t have information about both too, making it harder to get buy-in or investment from stakeholders.

Measuring content

Measuring content isn’t as straightforward as measuring journeys based on interactions (like donations, purchases or other transactions), but that's no reason not to do it. The key part to designing a measurement framework for your content is that you make it user centred: if you understand the goals of the audience your content is serving, you can start to map out what a successful journey looks like for them, and how you can measure that. What are the behaviours that will tell you that people are finding the content, and able to take their next steps? Design your measurement and tracking around the behaviour you understand from the insight you have from your specific user groups/audience segments and the context you understand from your qualitative research. For example, if you are publishing information to support people following a medical diagnosis of some sort, you might know that they go through different phases of understanding as they come to terms with their condition and grow their knowledge. You might witness different phases based on the language they use to enter your site such as initially starting with specific medical terms driving their search behaviour + “diagnosis” (or similar) and shifting into treatment based terminology, and then maybe into looser more colloquial terms later on as they have come to feel more comfortable with the topic.

Content measurement doesn’t just take place at scale though. Factoring in content effectiveness during qualitative user research will give you huge insight into how well your content can perform at scale. Comprehension testing, where you get participants to explain what they have understood from content, using their own words will show you if your information is likely to be understood.

Your content measurement activity should influence your ongoing optimisation and content management: if you measure your content’s performance but fail to take action from it, you won’t give people the best experience. As a starting point, make sure to identify your top performing pages and analyse why they are performing so well, and create a hit list of poorly performing content that needs further investigation and work through it. Prioritise how you work through it based on the needs of your user groups, and how critical their respective needs are.

Non-linear journeys

One of the biggest challenges of working with content-based journeys is that they are frequently non-linear. In their ideal, conceptual state, a content journey will usually go from A to B to C to D, but in reality, the journey is likely to be a more fragmented mess, done in bursts over a series of interrupted or abandoned visits.

Understanding what is going on in these fragmented journeys requires the contextual insight you get from user research like depth interviews, and diary studies. The circumstances people are in when they’re using websites determines their visit depth, time spent on the site, level of engagement and their ability to comprehend what they’re reading. A great journey isn’t necessarily one that follows a linear route - a great journey is one that allows the user to achieve what they want, and that will often mean a journey that they can pick up and put down without penalty. Your information architecture and visibility in search engine results pages plays a huge role in supporting this behaviour successfully.

Modelling this type of behaviour benefits from support from skilled analysts that can extrapolate audience segments and their combined behaviours to bring to life what is happening through the content journeys taking place.

How does this work for you?

Following my session at SDinGov, I’ve spoken with people from a number of different organisations and Government departments who are finding the challenge of measuring their content difficult at best, and totally intimidating and impossible at worst. I’m working on some guides to help with this, but I’d love to speak to anyone that is finding this a challenge so I can better tailor what I create - drop me an email if you’d like to share your experiences.

Of course, if you would like help creating an effective content measurement framework for your site, or would like help establishing how your content is performing you can also get in touch. Contact [email protected]

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Author information: Bonny Colville-Hyde , Product Director , Post information: , 6 min read ,
Related post categories: Digital products ,