The User We’ve Left Out: The Content Governor

by Jared M. Spool

One of the biggest sins an experience designer can commit is to leave an important user out from the design process. If we don’t even recognize the needs of the user, we can’t design great solutions for them. It’s even worse when that user is critical to making the design effective for everyone.

Yet teams we’ve worked with do this all the time. Hell, we’re even guilty of doing this for our own work. To make matters worse, it’s the same user in every case: The content governor.

Governance Doesn’t Just Happen

One of the most important ideas that content strategy has brought to the design table is the idea of governance. Before we started thinking about content strategy, we never considered governance’s importance.

The non-content parts of a design live until they are obsolete, which, most of the time, is some point in the future we can’t really predict. When we’re creating design elements, we’re not thinking about their entire lifecycle. Usually, we’re only focused on getting things up and running. Sometimes we’re thinking about how we’ll maintain it, but not often. And what will replace it? Not at all on our radar.

Good content changes all this. Let’s consider an important collection of content for a university web site: the financial aid pages. Here we have content we know, from the project’s start, will need updating and will eventually be replaced. We’ll need to update the application deadlines each year. New policies will force major changes.

Someone needs to be on top of all this, to be in charge of ensuring that the page always brings the best value it can. That person is the content governor. The governor is the one who oversees content during its lifespan. They are an important user of our designs.

It was Karen McGrane who put this idea into our heads—that we need to treat our site’s content governors as a user, not just as someone who works in a parallel department. If we don’t nail their experience just right, the content on our site will not meet the needs of our other users.

Content Is Not a Meme

Think of your favorite joke. Do you know who created it? Do you know who is in charge of updating it?

A knock-knock joke is a meme. That joke is passed from person to person without control or ownership. If it changes, it’s because of mutations in the communication process, not because of any intentional effort to keep it up to date.

Unlike the joke, well-designed content isn’t a meme. It needs an owner at every point in its lifecycle. It needs someone to look at it and intentionally decide whether it needs updating or replacement. That person may not be the same person who had created it, but there’s always someone who owns that content.

When we let our financial aid page reflect last year’s deadlines with no hints of what you’re supposed to do this year, we hurt our site’s user experience. This creates frustration with the college applicants who end up calling the admissions office. It’s likely frustrating for whoever answers the phone to give the correct deadline dates or has to deal with people who have missed them.

The content governor holds a lot of responsibility. They can eliminate all that frustration by ensuring the page is up to date.

We need to give the content governors the tools that help them do their job well. These tools must meet their needs. If we don’t design for the content governors, like we design for other users, how will we save our other users from the inevitable frustration?

Does the Template Help the Content?

The bane of any content governor’s existence is the page template. Templates help us because they expedite our design process. If we can identify patterns in the way the content wants to be displayed, we can make it easy on everyone for creating and maintaining the page.

With a great template, we separate the content from its presentation. We can change the position, weight, and other visual elements without having to change the content itself.

Well, that’s the theory. The problem is we don’t always do a good job of matching the template to the content.

Take our financial aid page. There’s a lot of different parts here. There’s a schedule of deadlines. There’s a list of available aid programs (with links to other pages that describe each in more depth). There’s a description of the application procedures. There’s probably overview text and basic definitions for people who are new to what aid is.

Chances are the financial aid page is unique in its content. A template used for some other page isn’t likely to work well here. And a template created for this page probably won’t find usage somewhere else.

This means we need to make a design decision: do we force a generic template on to the content of this page or do we create a custom, one-use template? This isn’t an easy question to answer. One-use templates dramatically increase the cost and time it takes to build out the site. Generic templates reduce the value by making it harder for the content governor to get the best experience out of the content.

The design team needs to work with every content governor to prioritize which content deserves this special attention and which can use an existing template. A page, like that containing financial aid information, could be mission critical enough that it warrants its own design effort.

Carefully-Designed Meta Data

To design for multiple devices, we now are designing different content configurations. What fits on a large desktop screen with fast bandwidth might want to be something more manageable when the screen is tiny or the bandwidth is slow.

This means we’re now creating and storing our content in chunks that we’ll dynamically display on the device. To make this work, we assign each chunk a semantic role, like deadline date or application procedure. We can reorganize and filter the content according to the roles we see fit.

I find myself coming back to this great quote from Ethan Resnick: ‘Metadata is the new art direction.’ If we’re using metadata to tell us how to use each chunk in our design, this adds a new level of sophistication to how we render our pages.

Choreographing the relationship between content, metadata, and its presentation is a new design challenge. Creating tools that help us manage these, especially for less technical content governors, opens a world of fun possibilities.

CMS Design: The Last Frontier

The Content Management System is the traditional front end for content creation and management. Content creators and governors work with it every day.

However, the interfaces to these tools are notoriously bad, leading to content being entered incorrectly. We then get a garbage-in-garbage-out result, bringing us more frustration all the way through the system.

If we try to pick out the most frustrating parts of all of our users’ experiences, including those of the content governor, we’re likely to find our CMS at the top of the list. As responsible designers, we need to take the CMS design seriously and give the content governor an interface that makes it easy to create and manage great content.

Mandatory Personas?

It would be easy to argue that we should automatically include a content governor in our set of design personas. These folks have an important role in our designs. If we make their job smooth and successful, we could see a dramatic improvement in the experiences of every user across the site.

About the Author

Jared M. Spool is a co-founder of Center Centre and the founder of UIE. In 2016, with Dr. Leslie Jensen-Inman, he opened Center Centre, a new design school in Chattanooga, TN to create the next generation of industry-ready UX Designers. They created a revolutionary approach to vocational training, infusing Jared’s decades of UX experience with Leslie’s mastery of experience-based learning methodologies.

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