We create most of the content on our websites with only a passing thought to the user. But what if we could involve the user in the production of our content? Just think how much more effective it could be.
One of the most common and damaging mistakes I see on websites is a lack of understanding about the user. In particular a lack of understanding about where the user is on their journey.
There is a belief that a website is much like any marketing channel. Within marketing the role of content is to convince the prospective customer. Convince them of their need for a product or service. But those visiting your website have already expressed an interest. They have opened a browser, searched for a product or service and visited your site.
The role of a website has more in common with the sales role of objection handling than a traditional marketing channel. It’s role is to address any questions or concerns that visitors may have. Then it is to make the next step as straightforward and painless as possible.
This means the content on your website needs to be addressing the visitors questions, not pushing your agenda. It is about them, not you. But to do that you need to understand the user. You need to understand their concerns, their questions and how they think. It makes sense then to involve the user as much as possible in the creation of content. But how can you do this?
There is no one size fits all approach to creating content with users. But I have found that a simple five step process works in many situations. This begins by finding out what questions, concerns and objections your site visitors may have.
1. Gather user questions
Whether you are creating new content or rewriting, you should always begin by asking what questions the user has. It is so tempting to just migrate existing content across to a new site. That or reuse content from elsewhere. But as I have written before this is a bad idea.
Instead, begin your project by gathering user questions. There are some great tools that make this process painless.
An online survey is a good place to begin. A tool like Questions, from Optimal Workshop, will help with that. By asking visitors to your site what questions they have, you will build up a sizeable list of answers you must provide.
But don’t stop there. Also look at what terms users entered on your site search and the terms that brought them to your site in the first place.
Finally, take the time to interview some existing customers. Find out what questions they had before they purchased. A tool like Reframer can help manage all that feedback and streamline the process.
These questions will become the basis of the content that you produce. But that should be just the beginning of involving your users and content creation. After all, we want content to be findable by users and that means organising things in the way they think.
2. Structure around user mental models
Another common mistake when creating content is organising it around company structure. Instead we need to build around the user’s mental model. What makes sense to those within the organisation will not be the same as what makes sense to the customer.
Many think that creating an information architecture is about logically grouping content together. That is not the case. Instead it is about organising the content in a way that the user will understand. This is not always logical!
For example, would you place tomatoes alongside fruit or vegetables in a supermarket? The logical thing would be to place them with the fruit, because that is what tomato is. But in truth most of us would expect to find tomatoes in the vegetable aisle. That is just how our minds work.
This makes it hard to create a good information architecture without including users in the process.
A good place to start is with a simple card sorting exercise. Take your questions and write them on separate cards. Then ask the user to group those cards together in a way that makes sense to them. Finally, ask them to label the groups with a title that makes sense from their perspective. This then becomes the basis of your information architecture.
The tricky parts to this kind of card sorting are getting access to users and also analysing the results. Once again, there are tools to help with this process. OptimalSort allows you to carry out card sorting online. It also has powerful tools for analysing the results.
With the draft information architecture in place you can now begin to prototype. This provides yet more opportunity to involve the user and ensure the quality and findability of your content.
3. Prototype and validate
Even when creating a site structure with users, you will still need to make a lot of decisions. You will need to make educated guesses. Guesses that you should test. You have to be sure users can find the information they are looking for.
A tool such as TreeJack is perfect for this. TreeJack enables you to test your site structure against real user tasks. Assign the user a task and watch as they try to navigate your site structure to find the answers they need.
Of course your site structure is only one aspect in finding content. Design and visual hierarchy is also important, especially on your homepage. If the user enters your site with a particular question, one wrong click can send them down the wrong path. That first click matters a lot.
Studies have shown that if the user first click takes them down the right path then there is an 87% chance of them completing their task. This is why we must take the time to prototype and test these kinds of key pages.
Chalkmark is an example of a tool that can help with this process. You can upload wireframes or design mockups and ask users to complete tasks. The application monitors where users first click and provides a heatmap of the results. This makes it easy to see if the page hierarchy is working as designed.
You will now know that you are answering the right questions and that those answers are findable. The question now becomes whether your content is persuasive enough. Whether you effectively address the questions and concerns.
4. Write with users
Here is a radical idea, if you want your copy to be relevant and appropriate, ask your target audience to help you write it. You would have to pay them for their time, but the result will be more relevant content.
Consider running a workshop exercise with a group of users. Write the title of each page on an index card along with the questions that the page should answer. If you feel that there are existing web pages that address similar content include those on the index card too.
Now ask users to take an index card, research the answers to the questions on the card and draft a response. They can complete as many index cards as time allows.
The advantage of this approach is that the answers will match the vocabulary and mental models of your audience.
This content will need editing to ensure a consistent tone of voice and remove errors. But it will throw up some surprising results and provide a good starting point for writing your final content.
5. Review often
Involving the user in the creation of content is a great way of testing its relevancy and findability. But as you add more content and your offering changes, you will need to make sure it remains relevant and findable. This means reviewing content on a regular basis.
This may feel like an impossible task in your organisation. Your website may contain hundreds of thousands of pages. No doubt there is a pressure to keep adding more content, but that is not always a good thing.
Every page you add to your website makes it harder for the user to find the specific answer that they are looking for. In fact, in most cases the majority of users want answers to only a handful of questions. By removing content you make it easier for them to find those answers.
The US Department of Health had 200,000 pages on their website. They deleted 150,000 and nobody noticed. Perhaps it is time for you to consider a similar approach. This will allow you the time to test and improve your existing content, rather than keep adding more.
The reason the user is so often excluded from the process of content creation is because including them takes time. This is hard to do when you are always creating more content.
It is time to shift our thinking away from content production and towards content relevancy. We need to build a culture of producing less content but testing what we have often to ensure that it is as relevant to user needs as possible.