A Checklist for Content Work

An excerpt of The Elements of Content Strategy by Erin Kissane (A Book Apart, 2011)

In content strategy, there is no playbook of generic strategies you can pick from to assemble a plan for your client or project. Instead, our discipline rests on a series of core principles about what makes content effective—what makes it work, what makes it good. Content may need to have other qualities to work within a particular project, but this list is limited to qualities shared across all sorts of content.

If this looks like theory, don’t be fooled. It’s really entirely practical: if we consciously refer to principles like these as we go about our work as info-nerds of various kinds, we’ll have an easier time making good, useful content—and explaining our priorities when we’re called to do so.

Good content is appropriate

Publish content that is right for the user and for the business

There’s really only one central principle of good content: it should be appropriate for your business, for your users, and for its context. Appropriate in its method of delivery, in its style and structure, and above all in its substance. Content strategy is the practice of determining what each of those things means for your project—and how to get there from where you are now.


Let us meditate for a moment on James Bond. Clever and tough as he is, he’d be mincemeat a hundred times over if not for the hyper-competent support team that stands behind him. When he needs to chase a villain, the team summons an Aston Martin DB5. When he’s poisoned by a beautiful woman with dubious connections, the team offers the antidote in a spring-loaded, space-age infusion device. When he emerges from a swamp overrun with trained alligators, it offers a shower, a shave, and a perfectly tailored suit. It does not talk down to him or waste his time. It anticipates his needs, but does not offer him everything he might ever need, all the time.

Content is appropriate for users when it helps them accomplish their goals.

Content is perfectly appropriate for users when it makes them feel like geniuses on critically important missions, offering them precisely what they need, exactly when they need it, and in just the right form. All of this requires that you get pretty deeply into your users’ heads, if not their tailoring specifications.

Part of this mind-reading act involves context, which encompasses quite a lot more than just access methods, or even a fine-grained understanding of user goals. Content strategist Daniel Eizans has suggested that a meaningful analysis of a user’s context requires not only an understanding of user goals, but also of their behaviors: What are they doing? How are they feeling? What are they capable of?

Venn diagram of user's contexts

Fig. 1. The user’s context includes actions, constraints, emotions, cognitive conditions, and more. And that in turn affects the ways in which the user interacts with content. (“Personal-Behavioral Context: The New User Persona.” © Daniel Eizans, 2010. Modified from a diagram by Andrew Hinton.)

It’s a sensible notion. When I call the emergency room on a weekend, my context is likely to be quite different than when I call my allergy specialist during business hours. If I look at a subway map at 3:00 a.m., chances are that I need to know which trains are running now, not during rush hour tomorrow. When I look up your company on my phone, I’m more likely to need basic contact info than your annual report from 2006. But assumptions about reader context—however well researched—will never be perfect. Always give readers the option of seeing more information if they wish to do so.


Content is appropriate for your business when it helps you accomplish your business goals in a sustainable way.

Business goals include things like “increase sales,” “improve technical support service,” and “reduce printing costs for educational materials,” and the trick is to accomplish those goals using sustainable processes. Sustainable content is content you can create—and maintain—without going broke, without lowering quality in ways that make the content suck, and without working employees into nervous breakdowns. The need for this kind of sustainability may sound boneheadedly obvious, but it’s very easy to create an ambitious plan for publishing oodles of content without considering the long-term effort required to manage it.

Fundamentally, though, “right for the business” and “right for the user” are the same thing. Without readers, viewers, and listeners, all content is meaningless, and content created without consideration for users’ needs harms publishers because ignored users leave.

This principle boils down to enlightened self interest: that which hurts your users hurts you.

Good content is useful

Define a clear, specific purpose for each piece of content; evaluate content against this purpose

Few people set out to produce content that bores, confuses, and irritates users, yet the web is filled with fluffy, purposeless, and annoying content. This sort of content isn’t neutral, either: it actively wastes time and money and works against user and business goals.

To know whether or not you have the right content for a page (or module or section), you have to know what that content is supposed to accomplish. Greater specificity produces better results. Consider the following possible purposes for a chunk of product-related content:

  • “Sell products”—This is so vague as to be meaningless and is likely to produce buzzword-infested fluff.
  • “Sell this product”—Selling a product is a process made up of many smaller tasks, like discussing benefits, mapping them to features, demonstrating results and value, and asking people to buy. If your goal is this vague, you have no idea which of these tasks (if any) the content will perform.
  • “List and demonstrate the benefits of this product”—This is something a chunk of content can actually do. But if you don’t know who is supposed to benefit from the product, it’s difficult to be specific.
  • “Show how this product helps nurse practitioners”—If you can discover what nurse practitioners need, you can create content that serves this purpose. (And if you can’t find out what they need before trying to sell them a product, you have a lot more to worry about than your content.)

Now do the same for every chunk of content in your project, and you’ll have a useful checklist of what you’re really trying to achieve. If that sounds daunting, think how much harder it would be to try to evaluate, create, or revise the content without a purpose in mind.

Good content is user-centered

Adopt the cognitive frameworks of your users

On a web project, user-centered design means that the final product must meet real user needs and fulfill real human desires. In practical terms, it also means that the days of designing a site map to mirror an org chart are over.

In The Psychology of Everyday Things, cognitive scientist Donald Norman wrote about the central importance of understanding the user’s mental model before designing products. In the user-centered design system he advocates, design should “make sure that (1) the user can figure out what to do, and (2) the user can tell what is going on.”

When it comes to content, “user-centered” means that instead of insistently using the client’s internal mental models and vocabulary, content must adopt the cognitive frameworks of the user. That includes everything from your users’ model of the world to the ways in which they use specific terms and phrases. And that part has taken a little longer to sink in.

Allow me to offer a brief illustrative puppet show.

While hanging your collection of framed portraits of teacup poodles, you realize you need a tack hammer. So you pop down to the hardware store and ask the clerk where to find one. “Tools and Construction-Related Accessories,” she says. “Aisle five.”

“Welcome to the Tools and Construction-Related Accessories department, where you will find many tools for construction and construction-adjacent activities. How can we help you?”

“Hi. Where can I find a tack hammer?”

“Did you mean an Upholstery Hammer (Home Use)?”


“Hammers with heads smaller than three inches are the responsibility of the Tools for Home Use Division at the far end of aisle nine.”

“Welcome to The Home Tool Center! We were established by the merger of the Tools for Home Use Division and the Department of Small Sharp Objects. Would you like to schedule a demonstration?”

“I just need an upholstery hammer. For…the home?”

“Do you require Premium Home Use Upholstery Hammer or Standard Deluxe Home Use Upholstery Hammer?”

“Look, there’s a tack hammer right behind your head. That’s all I need.”

DIRECTORY ACCESS DENIED. Please return to the front of the store and try your search again!”

Publishing content that is self-absorbed in substance or style alienates readers. Most successful organizations have realized this, yet many sites are still built around internal org charts, clogged with mission statements designed for internal use, and beset by jargon and proprietary names for common ideas.

If you’re the only one offering a desirable product or service, you might not see the effects of narcissistic content right away, but someone will eventually come along and eat your lunch by offering the exact same thing in a user-centered way.

Good content is clear

Seek clarity in all things

When we say that something is clear, we mean that it works; it communicates; the light gets through. Good content speaks to people in a language they understand and is organized in ways that make it easy to use.

Content strategists usually rely on others—writers, editors, and multimedia specialists—to produce and revise the content that users read, listen to, and watch. On some large projects, we may never meet most of the people involved in content production. But if we want to help them produce genuinely clear content, we can’t just make a plan, drop it onto the heads of the writers, and flee the building.

Of course, clarity is also a virtue we should attend to in the production of our own work. Goals, meetings, deliverables, processes—all benefit from a love of clarity.

Good content is consistent

Mandate consistency, within reason

For most people, language is our primary interface with each other and with the external world. Consistency of language and presentation acts as a consistent interface, reducing the users’ cognitive load and making it easier for readers to understand what they read. Inconsistency, on the other hand, adds cognitive effort, hinders understanding, and distracts readers.

That’s what our style guides are for. Many of us who came to content strategy from journalistic or editorial fields have a very strong attachment to a particular style—I have a weakness for the Chicago Manual of Style—but skillful practitioners put internal consistency well ahead of personal preferences.

Some kinds of consistency aren’t always uniformly valuable, either: a site that serves doctors, patients, and insurance providers, for example, will probably use three different voice/tone guidelines for the three audiences, and another for content intended to be read by a general audience. That’s healthy, reader-centric consistency. On the other hand, a company that permitted each of its product teams to create widely different kinds of content is probably breaking the principles of consistency for self-serving, rather than reader-serving, reasons.

Good content is concise

Omit needless content

Some organizations love to publish lots of content. Perhaps because they believe that having an org chart, a mission statement, a vision declaration, and a corporate inspirational video on the About Us page will retroactively validate the hours and days of time spent producing that content. Perhaps because they believe Google will only bless their work if they churn out dozens of blog posts per week. In most cases, I think entropy deserves the blame: the web offers the space to publish everything, and it’s much easier to treat it like a hall closet with infinite stuffing-space than to impose constraints.

So what does it matter if we have too much content? For one thing, more content makes everything more difficult to find. For another, spreading finite resources ever more thinly results in a decline in quality. It also often indicates a deeper problem—publishing everything often means “publishing everything we can,” rather than “publishing everything we’ve learned that our users really need.”

There are many ways to discover which content is in fact needless; traffic analysis, user research, and editorial judgment should all play a role. You may also wish to begin with a hit list of common stowaways:

  • Mission statements, vision statements, and core values. If the people within your organization are genuinely committed to abstract principles, it will show in what they do. The exception is the small number of organizations for whom the mission is the product, as is the case with many charities. Even then, this kind of content should be supplemented with plentiful evidence of follow-through.
  • Press releases. These may work for their very narrow intended audience, but putting them undigested onto a website is a perfect example of the how-we’ve-always-done-it mistake.
  • Long, unreadable legal pages. Some legal awkwardness is acceptable, but if you want to demonstrate that you respect your readers, take the extra time to whittle down rambling legalese and replace needless circumlocutions with (attorney-vetted) plain language.
  • Endless feature lists. Most are not useful to readers. The few that are can usually be organized into subcategories that aid findability and comprehension.
  • Redundant documentation. Are you offering the same audience three different FAQs? Can they be combined or turned into contextual help?
  • Audiovisual dust bunnies. Do your videos or animations begin with a long flying-logo intro? Do they ramble on for 30 minutes to communicate ten minutes of important content? Trim, edit, and provide ways of skipping around.

Once you’ve rooted out unnecessary content at the site-planning level, be prepared to ruthlessly eliminate (and teach others to eliminate) needless content at the section, page, and sentence level.

Good content is supported

Publish no content without a support plan

If newspapers are “dead tree media,” information published online is a live green plant. And as we figured out sometime around 10,000 BC, plants are more useful if we tend them and shape their futures to suit our goals. So, too, must content be tended and supported.

Factual content must be updated when new information appears and culled once it’s no longer useful; user-generated content must be nurtured and weeded; time-sensitive content like breaking news or event information must be planted on schedule and cut back once its blooming period ends. Perhaps most importantly, a content plan once begun must be carried through its intended growth cycle if it’s to bear fruit and make all the effort worthwhile.

This is all easy to talk about, but the reason most content is not properly maintained is that most content plans rely on getting the already overworked to produce, revise, and publish content without neglecting other responsibilities. This is not inevitable, but unless content and publishing tasks are recognized as time-consuming and complex and then included in job descriptions, performance reviews, and resource planning, it will continue.

Hoping that a content management system will replace this kind of human care and attention is about as effective as pointing a barn full of unmanned agricultural machinery at a field, going on vacation, and hoping it all works out. Tractors are more efficient than horse-drawn plows, but they still need humans to decide where and when and how to use them.

Of theses and church doors

One of the great images of the history of the Protestant Church is that of a German priest standing in the cold in front of the Castle Church in Wittenberg on All Saints Eve, nailing his manifesto to its wooden doors.

The reality of the publication of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses is messier, and whether the church doors were really involved at all is the subject of academic dispute, but one thing is clear: Luther published his theses to begin an open, public conversation.

Our industry doesn’t lack for manifestos, some of them even explicitly modeled after Luther’s. This article—and the book from which it’s extracted—is not one of the firebrand, nailed-to-the-door attempts at full-scale revolution.

But it is intended to continue conversations we’ve been having for years, and to spark new ones, about the shared principles and assumptions that underlie our work, and the weird and interesting things we can build on top of them.

I’ll bring the coffee and doughnuts. See you on the church steps? 


Legacy Content Solutions

By Paul Boagg

An automated solution

An automated solution is good for two reasons. First, it doesn’t require anybody manually checking all of the pages. Second, it doesn’t require one person telling another that their content is going to be taken down. The whole thing just happens. People are much more likely to agree to an automated policy for content control than they are to being singled out as somebody who hasn’t maintained their content properly.

So how would this automated approach work in practice?

Automated review points

Essentially a review of a particular webpage would occur when certain criteria are met. This review could happen automatically or manually depending on your preference. However, in either case it requires your content management system being able to identify pages that have reached a certain age (or a certain time since they were last reviewed). In most cases this is something that already exists in a CMS or could easily be added.

An alternative to time based review points would be traffic based. This is designed to remove content that is not really used by users rather than out of date content. This review point would be triggered if the traffic to a page falls below a certain threshold over a given period. This would indicate that the page is of little interest and is simply making it more difficult for the majority of people to find what they are after.

This is a lesson Microsoft had to learn with its support pages. They had support pages for every conceivable issue. However, instead of helping users most of this content just cluttered up the site and made it harder for users to find what they really wanted. In the end they removed less frequented pages and their customer satisfaction shot up.

How often you choose to review pages or how low the traffic trigger is, is entirely up to you. This will depend on how often your site/organisation changes and how much you want to ask of your content providers.

When a page is identified for review an email is sent out to the owner of this page (either manually or automatically) asking them to check the page. Ideally this should simply involve the content provider logging into the CMS and editing the page in question. A simple check box saying that the page is up-to-date is all that is required. If that is not possible a reply by email saying that the page is up-to-date would be just as good.

If the content provider fails to identify the page as up-to-date within a set time period, this triggers a cleanup event (see below). Notice the default here. At the moment the majority of websites defaults are organised so that if the content provider does nothing the content remains online. This approach turns that on its head. No action leads to content being marked for cleanup.

Sample email


What happens when a cleanup is triggered?

How you choose to handle the cleanup of webpages is up to you. However, here is my recommended process:

Mark the page as being old content

The first step would be to mark the content as old and potentially out of date. This can be done by automatically inserting a banner at the head of the main content telling the user that this content is potentially out of date. Below is an example of how this might look.

Example notification banner

You might wish to also send an email update to the content owner of that page saying that the page has been marked as out of date.

Remove the page from the site’s navigation

If the content provider still hasn’t checked the page after a set period you might then choose to trigger a further event that removes the page from the navigational structure of the site. This will reduce the clutter that users need to navigate through to find the page they want. However, for those who still really want to access these pages they are still findable via search.

Remove the page from the search results

Of course there is also the option to prevent pages being returned in search results too. It can be hard to find the right page when searching a large site simply because of the amount of content being returned. If a piece of content is out of date then it makes sense not to return it in the search results.

This effectively orphans the page but keeps it online. You may wonder what the point of this is. Surely you would be better deleting the page entirely?

Delete the page altogether

There are mixed opinions about deleting content entirely. On the surface it seems like the most logical thing to do. If content is horribly out of date or is rarely visited what is the point of it being online?

As I see it there is no harm in keeping it online if it is clearly labelled as out of date and it no longer prevents users from finding content they really want. However, removing it can be damaging.

For a start there maybe third party links to that page let alone hard coded links within your own website. The last thing you want to present a user with is a ‘page not found’ error.

The only time I would recommend removing a page entirely is when the user can be automatically redirected to an alternative page that serves their needs better.


I am not suggesting that this approach is perfect. There is nothing stopping a content provider just checking the ‘this page is up-to-date’ box without properly reviewing the content. However, it does put the onus on the content provider to take action. This should automatically remove huge amounts of content from the site without battling with each content provider individually.


Making mobile mistakes

by Paul Boag


I am not sure I like the way some are talking about the mobile web. Its passing through the same awkward adolescence that the web went through.

Like the web itself a few years back, organisations are beginning to pay attention as they see users slowly adopt mobile. They know it will be important but it doesn’t have the levels of usage to justify heavy investment.

At the same time we are seeing web designers jumping on the mobile bandwagon in much the same way print designers did with the web.

This fatal combination is leading to bad advice and half assed solutions.

I see similarities between the emergence of mobile and the emergence of the web itself. These similarities exist in three areas:

1. We can do the web too

I remember how annoying it used to be in the late nineties and early naughties when print designers started offering web design. From their perspective the web was similar to print.

In fact many of their skills were transferable. However, there was also a lot of differences too. The web and print simply were not that much alike.

I see the same thing happening with mobile. Many web designers are claiming they can do web too. They try to transfer their skills in web design and applying them to mobile. However this isn’t always the right approach.

I am not saying that web designers should not offer mobile (after all we do at Headscape). We just need to be careful we understand the mobile web before we start offering solutions that might ‘do the job’ now, but be wholly inadequate as we learn more about the medium.

I would argue it is not adequate to simply load a mobile stylesheet or have a responsive design. That brings me to the next similarity I see with days gone by.

2. We can just reuse…

Back in the early days of the web clients would talk about ‘putting their brochure online’. They wanted to replicate the print work they already had. They wanted the same words, same design, same everything.

What worries me is that I see clients and web designers having the same conversation today. The ‘one web’ brigade talk about delivering the same content to a mobile device and a desktop computer. Clients are asking for their ‘existing site‘ to work on mobile devices. Neither group seems to be considering whether users need the same content on both the web and mobile.

When it comes to the mobile web, context is king. What content we should be delivering is entirely reliant on the context the user is in. Take for example the Headscape website. Users are unlikely to want to view our portfolio on the small screen of a smartphone. However, they might want to get directions to our office or our phone number if they get lost.

A mobile device plays a different role to a desktop computer. We cannot simply ‘skin’ our existing website and expect that to be sufficient.

The last similarity I see between the emergence of the web and the emergence of mobile is ‘device specific development’.

3. This site/app only works in…

Those of us who have been working on the web for sometime joke about ‘the browser wars‘. This was a period of time when browser manufacturers would compete for market share by releasing their own proprietary tags that could be used by web designers. The casualties of this war were users who would often arrive at a website to be greeted by a message telling them that the site would only work in a particular browser (normally Internet Explorer).

Web designers were also a casualty of this war. They were sometimes expected to design their client’s website multiple times for different browsers. Finally the client suffered because they had to finance this reworking for different browsers.

I look at the mobile space at the moment and see much the same thing happening. Organisations are releasing iPhone and iPad apps, Android apps, and even Windows Mobile apps. Each device has its own unique functionality that the developer can call upon and so each provides a different experience.

Once again everybody suffers. Users suffer when their particular platform does not have the cool apps found on another platform. Developers suffer because they have to recode for each platform and clients are left footing the bill.

One answer to this problem would be to build web based apps rather than native apps. In fact Bruce Lawson gave a great talk at SXSW explaining just how much is possible without the need for running a local app. This would open up the possibilities of building once for all mobile platforms and use progressive enhancement to provide the best experience possible to each device.

From the cloud to the device and back again

At the moment the big drawback of web based mobile apps is speed and connectivity. Web based mobile apps are slow compared to their native cousins. What is more in many situations there can be no connectivity at all. At the moment at least, native apps look like the better option and we will all have to deal with the potential downsides.

That said, I think mobile will reflect the evolution of the web. For a long time software ran on our local machines. However, more recently we have seen a move to the web. This has happened because of broadband. That ‘always on’ high speed connection has allowed an explosion of cloud based apps. While the mobile web moves native the desktop app is moving to the cloud. I suspect therefore that when mobile devices also offer ‘always on’ high speed connections we will see a move back to cloud based apps. They will be cheaper to develop and run across more devices without the need to recode.

Of course these are all guesses. However, as I look at the development of the mobile space I am quietly confident that the future is rosy. I think we will learn from the mistakes made on the web itself and come out of the other end able to produce cheap, effective and usable mobile sites that are a lot more than a reformatted version of the website.


Those that argue mobile is an extension of traditional websites are in my opinion wrong. However, I equally believe that those who say the future is ultimately native are also wrong. I believe that the future lies with custom designed mobile websites that are cloud based. However, I think we will need to pass through the native app stage until the mobile networks can provide better quality universal connectivity.

But hey what do I know. That is just my opinion. Let me know what you think in the comments.


Starting small scale

In launching a market research online community (MROC), it can be tempting to recruit as many people as possible all at once so you can reach your desired community size quickly.  However, this could be a mistake that sacrifices the quality and success of your community in the long-term.  An alternative to consider is starting small (e.g., 25-50 participants at most) and then scaling the size of the community over time (3-6 months after launch).  This offers a number of advantages, including:

  • Cost Savings – It helps keep your initial costs low so you can pilot the approach before determing the appropriate long-term investment.
  • Finding Core Members – It helps you find your early core users and reward them as they help you grow the community. 
  • Testing Your Assumptions – A small-scale launch will help you determine if your initial assumptions were correct and give you time to adjust your strategy accordingly.  For example, you may have assumed that people would take to a certain area of the community, but find early on that they don’t.  Or you may have assumed a certain attrition rate in your recruitment budget, but find that it’s higher or lower in actuality.  
  • Targeting Incentives – Launching with a smaller group helps you develop an incentive plan that is tailored to the audience in your community, rather than taking a guess on what they want to get out of the experience.
  • It’s Easier to Manage – Last but not least is the fact that it’s easier to focus on giving 25-50 people a great experience than it is to give 300-500 people a great experience.  This is especially important if it’s your first time with a MROC and you don’t know exactly what to expect.

Of course, I write this knowing that I’ve made this mistake before.  There can be considerable pressure to launch, scale and deliver insight quickly from a MROC.  However, if you’re willing to be patient and take a long-term view, then starting your community with a handful of people and growing it over time can be a smart move.  Who knows, you might even decide to keep it small forever…


Search Behavior Shines Spotlight on Organic Results

Search has become a nearly ubiquitous online activity and Google remains the undisputed king—receiving the largest share of search ad revenue and traffic. But an eye-tracking study by user experience research firm User Centricadds a new perspective. Its research indicates that most search users overlook search ads almost entirely.

The findings showed organic search results were viewed 100% of the time, and participants spent an average of 14.7 and 10.7 seconds looking at organic search results on Google and Bing, respectively. However, only 28% of participants looked at right-side ads on Google, and just 21% did the same on Bing—spending around 1 second viewing all ads combined on each search engine. To put this in perspective, searchers who viewed the left-hand site navigation spent more time doing so than they did viewing ads on both search engines.

One caveat to the study: It was an artificial search environment. The participants were given search terms to use and may not have been regular Bing or Google users. However, participants searched on both sites in this study, and the results were statistically significant.


Viewing Metrics for Search Results on Google and Bing, July-Aug 2010 (% of participants and time spent (seconds))


With users spending nearly all their time viewing organic search results, Hitwise’s latest numbers give some further insight. Bing and Yahoo!’s success rates, meaning searches that resulted in a click, are just over 81% whereas Google sits much lower at 65.6% in December 2010 and January 2011.


Success Rate* Among Leading Search Engine Providers, Dec 2010 & Jan 2011


Although the sheer volume of searches Google handles may bring down its success rate, the difference been Google and Bing is still large enough to draw conclusions. First, users were shown to spend the vast majority of their time looking at organic search results on both search engines, and Bing’s success rate is 16 percentage points higher than Google’s. Therefore, even though Google has more traffic than Bing, the Microsoft search engine generates a greater share of relevant traffic per search.

Additionally, this data indicates that SEO is more essential than ever. Users have learned to overlook search ads, and they will continue to ignore such ads as they become even more search-savvy over time.

SEO will become increasingly challenging as users start to rely on search engines for different reasons. A recent study from Forrester Research found that internet users were 22 percentage points less likely in 2010 to rely on search engines to find websites than they were in 2004. Although this doesn’t mean people are using search engines less to find information about product types or branded goods, it does mean that they are relying on search less to find websites specifically.