Thursday, 9 March 2017

Can content ever be agile?

Content strategists often have an uneasy relationship with agile. We’re not as technical as developers. Not as obsessed with post-it notes as UXers. And nowhere near as hipster as most designers. Because of this, it’s sometimes tricky to figure out how content should work together with these disciplines. So we end up as natural outsiders. Mavericks. Loose cannons. 

Part of this boils down to our history. Like a lot of content people, I started off in print. And traditional publishing is very much waterfall. Fixed cost, fixed deadlines and fixed scope. So when I moved into digital, I had to learn how to retrofit those traditional publishing processes to digital content.

But I think a bigger issue is our obsession with being recognised. We’re a young profession, which means we often get sidelined, brought in at the end, or just generally underappreciated on projects. So to get around this, we decided to invent a bunch of buzzwords that people could reel off to get them thinking about content. That’s great – God knows the UX guys have enough of them.

The problem with these buzzwords is they encourage the idea of content as something sacred and holy that needs to sit outside of the agile process.

Content isn’t king

If you’re ever bored during a conference, count the number of times you hear “content is king”. I guarantee you’ll run out of fingers by the second presentation.

The problem with this phrase, is that ‘king’ implies content is more important than great UX. More important than awesome design and solid development.

It implies that those other disciplines are just there to do the grunt work to let your content shine.

And it implies that content doesn’t need to be iterative – it’s too important.

Quite frankly, it implies that content is a complete douchebag.

Rather than a king ruling over all he surveys, it’s better to think of content as the kingdom that connects all these different digital disciplines together. Yeah, your users come for great content. But great content needs awesome UX and design to deliver the best possible experience.

So understand these other disciplines

If you want to produce good content you should understand UX principles. You need to know what goes into making a design appealing. And you should recognise the pain points developers need to go through to make that ‘tiny’ CMS template tweak you’ve asked for.

I can’t stress how much easier it is to create great content if you’re working side-by-side with these other disciplines. If you don’t understand what your users want, then your content will suck. But if the UX guys don’t understand the best content to give to your users – well, your UX will probably suck as well.

As content strategists we shouldn’t be hung up on our content in-and-of-itself. Instead we should be focusing on how to use that content as part of a great digital experience. So next time you have the chance, attend that development standup. Be part of that UX workshop. Share an overpriced latte with a designer.

Learn about the other disciplines you’re working with – understand their challenges, and figure out how content can help.

Content first is a bad idea

For non-digital folk, content first implies a defined process. You do the content, then the UX, then the design, and then the development. Classic waterfall project management.

When people use this phrase, what they really mean is “think about content at every stage”.

The best agile teams treat content as an MVP to iterate on. Start off with your message, then hone, focus and optimise it over time.

This can make stakeholders uncomfortable. Mostly because they can never “sign off” the content, since it’s always changing based on the stuff you’re learning.

So how can we encourage this approach?

Never, ever, ever (ever, ever, ever) accept lorem ipsum

Well firstly, acknowledge that lorem ipsum is the devil. Seriously. If you take away nothing else from this post, it’s that content is linked tightly to UX and design.

Without real content your user is always going to have an artificial experience. And you’re never going to be able to feed back the insights you’ve learnt into making your content better.

So if you’ve got something to test, knuckle down and come up with a first iteration of the content. It doesn’t need to be perfect. But it does need to be actual, proper content you think your users will respond to. No Latin please.

Accept the idea of a content MVP

Then after testing, if you find yourself changing the UX or design of a page then re-visit and re-test the content at the same time. Now, take a deep breath and repeat after me:
  •   if you do a UX activity, re-visit the content
  •   if you do a design activity, re-visit the content
  •   if your developer builds new functionality, re-visit the content.

Repeat this mantra as often as you can. Preferably on public transport, at important social events, or in a lull between meetings in the office. That way as many people as possible will recognise your commitment to content as something to refine and update over time.

Accept your content is only done when it’s left the website

And when you’ve finally published your content, remember that’s not the end of the process. Your users’ motivations will change over time, as will the way they interact with your content. So you’ll need to keep that content up to date and relevant.

If you take this iterative approach then make sure you build in metrics for success upfront during the planning stage. Then test those metrics 3 months, 6 months, 12 months down the line to check your content’s still performing well.

Making the agile jump

Hopefully by now you’ll recognise that content absolutely has a home in the agile process. It sometimes just takes a little extra coaxing into place than other disciplines.

At Cancer Research UK we’re trying to embrace this approach as much as we can. It’s tough, particularly for people who are used to nice, neat chunks of sketching, wireframing, designing and content-ing (if this isn’t a word it should be). But it’s the best way of using content to create a properly joined up experience for your users.

So take a deep breath, and leap into the agile content mindset. I promise, your content will be better for it. And it won’t hurt. Much.

Chris Flood
Content Strategy Lead

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