Content tinkerer or strategist?
This winter I came to understand why I still love my profession. My latest project was an intense blur of task analysis, content prototyping and testing, all done with government program experts who loved the process as much as our team did. In eight weeks we had workable prototypes of three products vetted by the experts, with each set of service initiation pages ready for final sign-off.
What could make this efficient and productive content development process a daily one in government? How could departments get to a point where well-crafted and tested content is essential to delivering quality services?
As Glinda told Dorothy, it’s always best to start at the beginning. Where are you now? What does your content development process look like? Your trip down the yellow brick road first needs analysis to understand your current operational issues.
Five types of content development
Four of the content development scenarios that I will describe struggle with content, create inefficiencies and raise real risks that there’s poor or unbelievably bad content online. This is content without purpose or connection to program objectives. The low quality results in confused citizens contacting the call centre every day to understand what’s being said.
The content development process is this: a program orders the web publishing team to “put it up.” The process doesn’t allow for any intervention by the web team to do even a rudimentary review. If there are problems with existing content, few would know. The risk is high that published content is contradictory or out of date. (Programs are responsible for the accuracy of the information they put online but often aren’t aware of the content issues.) The web team is miserable because they see the issues but there is no process to improve content, leadership to guide the process, or both. Team members with a passion for content pack up and head to another department.
The content development process introduces reviews for accessibility. And though accessibility is essential, there’s a content aspect that’s often overlooked. Using plain language as a fundamental part of content development makes sure anyone with limitations, physical or cognitive, can understand the content. The web team isn’t allowed to do this step, but does perform some light editing functions. However, they can’t challenge why they must publish this content. Ever.
Here the process includes more proactive activities as part of content development. The web team performs content audits, improves the findability of content and tests some of its prototypes. But this work is only done if funding is available. Typically, there’s funding with a government-wide push to improve online services, but in between those infusions of cash there can be periods of budget cuts. With a lack of funds, the web team can keep the lights on but they can’t embark on content optimization projects. The ubiquitous low-hanging (low value) fruit gets tweaked (again), but there’s no real effort to make tangible and meaningful improvements. Online services suffer from the lack of oversight to make sure the interface content is understandable.
In this content development process the drumbeat to make content better may not be loud, but it’s steady. There’s enough wins by the digital team to get programs onside with new content processes. These teams demand data to make informed decisions. In these departments there are cross-functional content optimization projects, and teams and governance groups share their practices. But content optimization capacity is limited as budgets don’t consider the value of content during program development and delivery. It’s rare for someone with content skills to help design an application interface. Anyone with content skills will head to the department with the best reputation for content. There’s still bad content online but it will get better. Some day.
The ideal content process is one that expects, embeds and embraces content specialists. And this can happen anywhere in the organization: communications, design/innovation hub or even at the program level. The content specialist handles content strategy (deciding what content is needed and why) in partnership with program and policy experts. The cross-functional nature of this process means content decisions are made by teams in real-time so that important policy context is part of the writing process, not a precursor to it. Content designers have a range of abilities beyond excellent writing skills. They are curious, passionate about outcomes, and like working in teams. Match a skilled content specialist with a developer, a business analyst and a policy/program expert, and watch the magic happen.
Maturing your content development process
Building the optimal content process for your organization requires some design thinking. Your first two steps are to understand your present situation and set a vision for your ideal scenario. You can depict each of these steps on a current state journey map to show the pain points and a future state map to represent a more mature scenario.
Once you know where you want to be with your vision, you can pick incremental ways to mature your process:
- if your team acts like a fixer, try stepping up to be an advocate and sell the advocacy model to your leadership
- push for the content strategist scenario for a high profile area of work so that you can “do it right” and demonstrate the value of that way of working
- pilot one or two content processes to test approaches before committing to a large-scale change
- devote current FTEs to content optimization work
- rethink the structure of your team and consider adding boxes for content specialists to your organization charts
Your yellow brick road awaits.
Denise Eisner is a content strategist and designer with a passion for creating enhanced user experiences.