Extracting the Content

As we throw away our canvas in approaches and yearn for a content-out process, there remains a pain point: the Content. It is spoken of in the hushed tones usually reserved for Lord Voldemort. The-thing-that-someone-else-is-responsible-for-that-must-not-be-named.

Designers and developers have been burned before by not knowing what the Content is, how long it is, what style it is and when the hell it’s actually going to be delivered, in internet eons past. Warily, they ask clients for it. But clients don’t know what to make, or what is good, because no one taught them this in business school. Designers struggle to describe what they need and when, so the conversation gets put off until it’s almost too late, and then everyone is relieved that they can take the cop-out of putting up a blog and maybe some product descriptions from the brochure.

The Content in content out.

I’m guessing, as a smart, sophisticated, and, may I say, nicely-scented reader of the honourable and venerable tradition of 24 ways, that you sense something better is out there. Bunches of boxes to fill in just don’t cut it any more in a responsive web design world. The first question is, how are you going to design something to ensure users have the easiest access to the best Content, if you haven’t defined at the beginning what that Content is? Of course, it’s more than possible that your clients have done lots of user research before approaching you to start this project, and have a plethora of finely tuned Content for you to design with.

Have you finished laughing yet? Alright then. Let’s just assume that, for whatever reason of gross oversight, this hasn’t happened. What next?

Bringing up Content for the first time with a client is like discussing contraception when you’re in a new relationship. It might be awkward and either party would probably rather be doing something else, but it needs to be broached before any action happens (that, and it’s disastrous to assume the other party has the matter in hand). If we can’t talk about it, how can we expect people to be doing it right and not making stupid mistakes? That being the case, how do we talk about Content? Let’s start by finding a way to talk about it without blushing and scuffing our shoes. And there’s a reason I’ve been treating Content as a Proper Noun.

The first step, and I mean really-first-step-way-back-at-the-beginning-of-the-project-while-you-are-still-scoping-out-what-the-hell-you-might-do-for-each-other-and-it’s-still-all-a-bit-awkward-like-a-first-date, is for you to explain to the client how important it is that you, together, work out what is important to your users as part of the user experience design, so that your users get the best user experience. The trouble is that, in most cases, this would lead to blank stares, possibly followed by a light cough and a query about using Comic Sans because it seems friendly.

Let’s start by ensuring your clients understand the task ahead. You see, all the time we talk about the Content we do our clients a big disservice. Content is poorly defined. It looms over a project completion point like an unscalable (in the sense of a dozen stacked Kilimanjaros), seething, massive, singular entity. The Content.

Defining the problem.

We should really be thinking of the Content as ‘contents’; as many parts that come together to form a mighty experience, like hit 90s kids’ TV show Mighty Morphin Power Rangers*.

*For those of you who might have missed the Power Rangers, they were five teenagers with attitude, each given crazy mad individual skillz and a coloured lycra suit from an alien overlord. In return, they had to fight a new monster of the week using their abilities and weaponry in sync (even if the audio was not) and then, finally, in thrilling combination as a Humongous Mechanoid Machine of Awesome. They literally joined their individual selves, accessories and vehicles into a big robot. It was a toy manufacturer’s wet dream.

So, why do I say Content is like the Power Rangers? Because Content is not just a humongous mecha. It is a combination of well-crafted pieces of contents that come together to form a well-crafted humongous mecha. Of Content.

The Red Power Ranger was always the leader. You can imagine your text contents, found on about pages, product descriptions, blog articles, and so on, as being your Red Power Ranger.

Maybe your pictures are your Yellow Power Ranger; video is Blue (not used as much as the others, but really impressive when given a good storyline); maybe Pink is your infographics (it’s wrong to find it sexier than the other equally important Rangers, but you kind of do anyway). And so on.

These bits of content – Red Text Ranger, Yellow Picture Ranger and others – often join together on a page, like they are teaming up to fight the bad guy in an action scene, and when they all come together (your standard workaday huge mecha) in a launched site, that’s when Content becomes an entity.

While you might have a vision for the whole site, Content rarely works that way. Of course, you keep your eye on the bigger prize, the completion of your mega robot, but to get there you need to assemble your working parts, the cogs and springs of contents that will mesh together to finally create your Humongous Mecha of Content. You create parts and join them to form a whole. (It’s rarely seamless; often we need to adjust as we go, but we can create our Mecha’s blueprint by making sure we have all the requisite parts.)

The point here is the order these parts were created. No alien overlord plans a Humongous Mechanoid and then thinks, “Gee, how can I split this into smaller fighting units powered by teenagers in snazzy shiny suits?” No toy manufacturer goes into production of a mega robot, made up of model mecha vehicles with detachable arsenal, without thinking how they will easily fit back together to form the ‘Buy all five now to create the mega robot’ set. No good contents are created as a singular entity and chunked up to be slotted in to place any which way, into the body of a site.

Think contents, not the Content. Think of contents as smaller units, or as a plural. The Content is what you have at the end. The contents are what you are creating and they are easy to break down. You are no longer scaling the unscalable. You can draw the map and plot the path, page by page, section by section.

The page table is your friend

To do this, I use a page table. A page table is a simple table template you can create in the word processor of your choice, that you use to tell you everything about the contents of a page – everything except the contents itself.

Here’s a page table I created for an employee’s guide to redundancy in the alpha.gov.uk website:

Guide to redundancy for employees

  • Page objective: Provide specific information for employees who are facing redundancy about the process, their options and next steps.
  • Source content: directgov page on Redundancy.
  • Scope: In scope
Page title An employee’s guide to redundancy
Priority content Message: You have rights as an employee facing redundancy Method: A guide written in plain English, with links to appropriate additional content.
A video guide (out of scope).
Covers the stages of redundancy and rights for those in trade unions and not in trade unions. Glossary of unfamiliar terms. Call to action: Read full guide, act to explore redundancy actions, benefits or new employment. Assets: link to redundancy calculator.
Secondary Related items, or popular additional links.
Additional tools, such as search and suggestions.

  • location set v not set states
  • microcopy encouraging location set where location may make a difference to the content – ie, Scotland/Northern Ireland.
Tertiary Footer and standard links.
  • Content creation: Content exists but was created within the constraints of the previous CMS. Review, correct and edit where necessary.
  • Maintenance: should be flagged for review upon advice from Department of Work and Pensions, and annually.
  • Technology/Publishing/Policy implications: Should be reviewed once the glossary styles have been decided. No video guide in scope at this time, so languages should be simple and screen reader friendly.
  • Reliance on third parties: None, all content and source exists in house.
  • Outstanding questions: None.

Download a copy of this page table

This particular page table template owes a lot to Brain Traffic’s version found in Kristina Halvorson’s book Content Strategy for the Web. With smaller clients than, say, the government, I might use something a bit more casual. With clients who like timescales and deadlines, I might turn it into a covering sheet, with signatures and agreements from two departments who have to work together to get the piece done on time.

I use page tables, and the process of working through them, to reassure clients that I understand the task they face and that I can help them break it down section by section, page stack to page, down to product descriptions and interaction copy. About 80% of my clients break into relieved smiles. Most clients want to work with you to produce something good, they just don’t understand how, and they want you to show them the mountain path on the map. With page tables, clients can understand that with baby steps they can break down their content requirements and commission content they need in time for the designers to work with it (as opposed to around it). If I was Santa, these clients would be on my nice list for sure.

My own special brand of Voldemort-content-evilness comes in how I wield my page tables for the other 20%. Page tables are not always thrilling, I’ll admit. Sometimes they get ignored in favour of other things, yet they are crucial to the continual growth and maintenance of a truly content-led site. For these naughty list clients who, even when given the gift of the page table, continually say “Ooh, yes. Content. Right”, I have a special gift. I have a stack of recycled paper under my desk and a cheap black and white laser printer. And I print a blank page table for every conceivable page I can find on the planned redesign. If I’m feeling extra nice, I hole punch them and put them in a fat binder.

There is nothing like saying, “This is all the contents you need to have in hand for launch”, and the satisfying thud the binder makes as it hits the table top, to galvanize even the naughtiest clients to start working with you to create the content you need to really create in a content-out way.

About the author

Relly Annett-Baker lives in the Home Counties with her husband, Paul Annett, and their two small sons. As a result, she thrives on the country air and can be guaranteed to stand on Lego at least once a day. Her principle employment is as live-in domestic staff for two cats but when not being purred into submission she is a content strategist and writer, runs dedicated workshops in-house with companies big and small and continues to procrastinate over the draft of her Five Simple Steps book ‘Content Creation for the Web’ due out in 2012. She’ll get right back to it just after she’s had another cup of tea and checked her RSS feed.

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