Adopting an agile approach to content

3 minute read

For the past 10 years I've led on digital content efforts at top-ranking English universities, many of the problems I have encountered are no different from those experienced by other organisations.

In Kristina Halvorson's seminal article she used a drawing of an elephant to illustrate the problem of describing content strategy. The problem of how to create, publish and govern useful, usable digital content remains the elephant in the room.The question now isn't what is content strategy, but how do you deliver it? Especially when you face competing priorities, limited resources and a silo mentality.At the University of Bath, we're delivering our content strategy using an agile approach to digital content.

What is agile?

Agile is an iterative approach to product development.Unlike waterfall-led approaches, discovery, design, development and testing are continuous processes. You deliver incrementally throughout the project, instead of at the end.

The difference between Agile and Waterfall approaches

So how do you adopt an agile approach to digital content?

You need a vision

In digital content terms, your vision is your content strategy. It's the plan for how you will make things better for the people who use your digital content.In agile, your vision often takes the form of a roadmap. This outlines the steps you’ll need to take in the form of a timeline - it's not a project plan.Its purpose is to explain the project's aims and goals using plain English, helping you to communicate how you'll fix content creation, publishing and governance.

User needs

User stories are at the heart of agile. These are simple descriptions of a user need, told from the perspective of the person who’ll use the product or service.

There are a number of ways to format user stories, however, they all explain who the user is, the task they are trying to complete and the outcome.

For example:

As a prospective student

I want to know what courses the University offers

So that I can find out what I can study at Bath.

As a prospective student

I need the specific bursary eligibility criteria

So I know if I qualify.

We use data to inform our stories and identify what users are trying to do.So why write user stories? They help you to focus on making sure that your content meets people's needs. Ann Handley, Head of Content at MarketingProfs, describes this as a “relentless empathy for… [your] audience” (Handley, 2014).

Prioritising delivery

Agile works by taking these user stories and prioritising them in a backlog of tasks, which you’ll use to fix the problem.The team works through the list of prioritised stories in a short development cycle called a sprint. These typically last 1 or 2 weeks.The great thing about working in this way is that it helps you to focus. A sprint could concentrate on fixing a specific issue with navigation, or delivering the first iteration of a style guide to address common issues.At the end of a sprint you publish. This means people can quickly benefit from improvements to content.

Working collaboratively

But Agile is more than just scheduling. It's a principles-based way of working that allows designers, developers, editors and subject experts to truly collaborate in multidisciplinary teams by connecting silos. sprint teams typically include designers, developers, editors and subject experts.

User stories establish a shared vocabulary, helping to bridge the divide between disciplines.The team works on tasks sequentially, rather than concurrently. This brings the right people together at the right time. An editor could pair with a developer to deliver a content model, or with a subject expert to write a how to guide.When we work in this way, the quality of our work is better and we deliver more quickly.

Worrying about what matters

Agile helps you to focus on the things that matter most. This is particularly important in complex organisations where there are often competing priorities.Agile helps organisations to focus on meeting user needs, prioritising delivery and helping people to collaborate.

Learn more

Richard presented a GatherContent webinar on this topic. Watch the recording for How to collaborate on content with an agile team.


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About the author

Richard Prowse

Richard Prowse is Head of Digital at the University of Bath and a leading content strategist in higher education. He is best known for his work on adopting an agile approach to delivery and his work on structured content.

Rich leads a multi-disciplinary team of content creators, user experience designers and developers at the University of Bath who are responsible for The team has been working on an ambitious programme to transform the University’s digital marketing and communications platforms.

Co-chair of ContentEd 2018, Rich regularly shares his experiences and knowledge at higher education content conferences in the UK and the US.

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