Content reviews are often the most challenging part of the content development process. They can be made even more challenging in large organisations, where one piece of content could have many owners from different departments. How do you make sure that everyone who needs to see the content gets their say, that the input is coherent and that it all gets done in time?
We faced this problem when redesigning a Singapore government website. The redesign was part of the ministry’s efforts to improve customer experience on the website. The website is quite large, with over 1,000 web pages owned by many different departments. We had to rewrite and review each page and the number of reviewers and approvers made us uneasy about completing the project in three months. But we did. And it was largely due a review process called barn raising.
Barn raising is a collective action in a community. Back in the day, when one member of a community wanted to build a barn, everyone would get together and help build it. At the end of the day, you would have a barn standing.
This idea of collective work around a common goal can be applied to content reviews. In ‘barn raising’ sessions, writers and reviewers sit together to review content. Any changes can be made on the spot. At the end of the day, you would have a set of content cleared.We have had positive results with this process, and it has become our preferred way to do content reviews for multi-owner pages.Here’s how to run a barn raising session.
For a barn raising, you’ll need:
It easy to stick with the traditional way of doing things, even when the odds are stacked against you. With the ministry, we found a strong willingness to try out a new method and go all out to support it. Needless to say that such an effort would not be possible without their trust. Look out for this willingness factor - it makes all the difference.
There are three roles involved in a barn raising session:
Writers will help facilitate the reviews. If there is disagreement with the reviewer, writers will need to be ready to back up their editorial choices and be able to suggest alternatives if something isn’t working. It helps to have an agreed standard, such as an editorial style guide, to base decisions on. We’ve also found a content patterns library useful for suggesting alternative ways to present content.
Reviewers should have the subject matter expertise for the content. At least one should have the power to make decisions.
Coordinators have a tough job. They will select the pages that need to be reviewed, schedule the barn raising, block meeting rooms and follow up on activities. You’ll need to assign two coordinators, one from the design team and one from the client team.
Select the pages for review and assign writers and reviewers to them. Make sure that the pages have been through at least one round of internal quality checks.Either you or the coordinator will need to create a schedule for the session. Decide whether you’ll have multiple tracks with each writer handling one track, or a single track. Let reviewers know if they can drop by when it’s their turn or if they need to commit a whole day.The number of pages can you can realistically expect to go through in a session depends on the complexity of the content. With a group of 3 writers and sometimes 10 reviewers, we’ve managed up to 40 pages in a day.
You will need a shared platform that both writers and reviewers can access (we used Gather Content). It gave us the ability to structure content and work directly in HTML.
The meeting room should have ample space for cluster seating if needed. Ensure that there are enough power sockets nearby for laptops. If multiple reviewers will be looking at the content, you will need a projector.
Hold briefing sessions for reviewers on the goals, their role and what to expect for the barn raising. In our briefings, we told them about our user research, our approach to the content, and the review process. We also introduced the style guide to give them an understanding of why the content is written that way.You may also want to give reviewers access to the content beforehand, so they can add comments ahead of time.
If you are doing the session for the first time, expect everyone to be anxious. Writers want to get into a rhythm quickly. Reviewers want to know what they will be doing for an entire day. You have to give assurance that things will work out just fine and settle them into their places.The good news is, a successful early barn raising can create buzz.
During the actual review, you may notice that some reviews run more smoothly than others. It is useful to understand if this due to a particular review style. If it is, then communicate this style to other writers so that the entire process can be more efficient.For example, after a few sessions we realised that things ran faster if the writer read out a paragraph and asked for comments, rather than having the reviewer silently read the content and point out the changes. Implementing this across all review sessions made the process much smoother.Give reviewers enough time to hash out issues among themselves, but be ready to step in if you feel a discussion is not progressing.
Reviewers may have qualms about the changes, as in the case of our project where we were switching from a more formal style to plain language. Here’s where the briefings and the style guide come in. They'll give you a more objective basis for negotiating your changes.Sometimes, a reviewer's suggestion may warrant a change in the style guide. For example, we changed the term “applicant” to "candidate" for permit applications because a reviewer pointed out that the person applying may not be the person getting the permit.
After a barn raising session, debrief and discuss what can be done better, faster and smarter. Also, make sure that any pending issues are followed up on. These include:
Here are a few lessons we’ve learned along the way:
There are many ways to review content. We found that the barn raising method was faster and better in our situation. Faster because we managed to review 1,000 pages in 3 months, and better because both the client and our teams collectively learned a lot during the process. There was a feeling of continuous learning and constant improvement.If you try barn raising, let us know how it works out for you.
Maish Nichani heads PebbleRoad, an enterprise UX consultancy based in Singapore. He has over 15 years of experience working with digital content, designing e-learning courses, large websites, intranets and enterprise apps. At PebbleRoad, he focuses on building a culture of innovation, guiding his team to service clients such as the Asian Development Bank, PayPal, SingTel and local government agencies. You can connect with him on LinkedIn or Twitter.