Responsive Content Modelling – Part 1

by Steve Fisher

Already read part one? Read part two of the article here.

I’ve always told clients that we’re a team, solving problems together. And I believed that, but a missing piece promoted distraction and prevented trust. Turns out that missing piece was a good ole content quarrel.

The most important thing

The most important thing anyone can do on a web project is find its nucleus. The core, that central piece of content around which everything orbits. Finding that reveals how all of the content fits together. It offers clarity to the relationships between the project’s content and the project’s vision, and will make your process far more successful.

A website is a black hole without content, and finding that core piece saves us from being sucked into the gravitational pull of building fancy buckets to hold lorem ipsum. It changes our center of gravity from a negative to a positive and connects people to people. The web exists to connect us–not to machines, but to each other. Unless the machine is Data, then I’m cool with that.

I help teams find the content nucleus through a collaborative responsive content modeling process that anyone can–and should–do.

Finding this core content will speed up the future design, content and development process. The entire team (vendors, stakeholders, audiences) will walk away with a common understanding and vision. Every time you write or revise, you’ll think about that core piece of content and refocus. The content authoring experience becomes what you it was always meant to be: dreamy.

So. Why model?

We live in a multi-device world and that’s not likely to change. Considering the number of current devices alone is mind boggling. Our content could be displayed on TVs, laptops, iPhones, android devices, Times-Square-type displays, projections, watches, audio devices… and this list grew as I typed.

Don’t you want your core idea–your primary message–to be clear and easy to access on all devices? Of course you do! Finding the nucleus of your content will make that happen. Prioritizing core content will also make it display-ready for gadgets like Google Glass and Apple Watches. Maybe that future device will share content wirelessly from a touch-screen watch to an audio interface in your sunglasses. BOOM–your prioritized content will be in place and ready for duty!

The team also orbits this central content. The process unites far flung members who aren’t sure how they’d work together to make a project successful. When they rally to find this central content, they become bonded by its gravitational pull. It’s the number one exercise I lead that causes that aha moment–the moment people understand how the project will succeed. It isn’t just finding the atomic piece that is the big win–it finding it together.

The right expectations

You *will* find a great solution. Everyone on the team needs to believe in the success of this activity. Positive thinking goes a long way to achieving success. And, honestly, I’ve never lead a session that hasn’t been successful.

The activity will be intense. There will be times when everyone’s staring into space, rocking to self-sooth. Pushing through will bring success. I promise.

The right team

You need people in the room who have the right passion and the right information. Here’s a typical team:

  1. UX lead
  2. Content strategist
  3. Developer
  4. Client project sponsor
  5. Client IT lead
  6. Client content specialist

It may not be possible to have these specialists for every project, but there’s probably people with these general responsibilities in their official (or unofficial) job descriptions. The goal is to involve people who understand the problem, are passionate about solving it, and have the authority to make decisions. A lot will happen during the workshop that will be foundational for future work.

The right foundation

How do you find your core pieces of content and your team’s aha moment? This can’t happen without these few foundational steps.

Step One – Know your content

Inventory everything you have. An audit will give you a clear picture of not only what exists, but its quality and reason for existing (OUCH/ROT).

Step Two – Know your purpose

  • Knowing your audiences and their priorities
  • Creating a UX vision for the project
  • Understanding your design principles
  • Setting your high-level goals for the site

We have to know what exists to know its purpose and to see patterns. We need to know our purpose because we can’t know what our central content type is without knowing who we’re communicating with and why. If you don’t know who you’re talking to, its pretty damn hard to write for them.

Getting our hands dirty

Having everyone together is key. Sometimes this means being locked in a room for the better part of a week. Sometimes just a couple days. It might look like a jury talking through the most important case ever.

We take breaks as a group and lunch gets delivered. Responsive content modeling is a team–building exercise–with less trust falls and more post–it notes. But trust will be crucial. Everyone needs to feel safe to speak freely, and that’s tricky without trust.

First the who, the why, and the what

So we don’t fall into the trap of letting opinion guide our decisions, it’s important that we establish our who: our audience and their needs.

The UX vision is the big WHY statement we’re striving for. Fire off a quick draft to get it out there and ensure it is pointing the group towards the right target down.

For the City of Red Deer our first draft stuck.

A web first organization that empowers anyone to access City of Red Deer information and services in any way they choose.

The next step is to establish the project’s design principles. These are the guideposts for all decision making during the project. They’re the values or why statements that will keep us moving towards the vision. Think of them as the guiding principles.

From the same project for the City of Red Deer we came up with seven design principles.

Users first
Help users get the information they want by focusing on common user expectations.

Plan for content, technical, and information architecture that can be easily maintained for the long term.

Create content that is accessible for the majority of people (using web accessibility guidelines) and the majority of devices (using responsive web design).

For real people
Engage people through a clear and honest voice.

Relevant content
Represent connections within the community through content related to City business and services.

Passion for your content
Everyone – the public, content authors, content champions – own, care for, and love their content.

Progressive enhancement
Start with the core experience available for all, and enhance the user experience when possible. (Ex: additional columns for wide screen, GPS location on certain devices). Protect the core.

With this framework established, we can dig in to the content modeling phase of our workshop. We’re going to prioritize every content type and as a team. We must agree on everything–no compromise. This is a must.

This is where we focus on audience needs and toss opinions aside. This is the secret to delight audiences and give them what they need.

About the Author

Steve Fisher started out as a web designer. He quickly became focused on improving the experience for everyone using the projects he worked on. Steve has used responsive design to make web projects more accessible across devices. You can follow Steve on Twitter at @hellofisher.

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