Building trust and clarity through a custom workflow

Building trust and clarity through a custom workflow

6 minute read

Building trust and clarity through a custom workflow

6 minute read

Building trust and clarity through a custom workflow

Thomas Deneuville

Director of Web Services and UX, Cornell University

In January 2017, it was very cold in Ithaca, NY. Yet, I was not looking forward to the Spring.

We were in the middle of a 60-week double redesign of two important websites at Cornell University. Spring would coincide with content creation and migration of a couple hundred pages. It doesn’t sound that bad, right? Well, that was coming from 2000 - 3000 pages, with a lot of content contributors, reporting to a lot of program directors, who had worked for years on their content.

How did we get 30 contributors and 20 approvers to get on board with a new content paradigm, and to reduce their content by 10-15x while improving quality?

Whatever is well conceived is clearly said, And the words to say it flow with ease.

—Nicolas Boileau (1636 – 1711)

The foundation

We were lucky to work with Mule Design Studio on this project and our guiding principles came out of a solid discovery phase, informed with a lot of user research (Erika Hall, Mule’s co-founder, wrote the book: Just Enough Research).

Our collaboration produced an information architecture (IA) that we were excited about: We were going from pages to pathways, a huge leap for an organisation that had operated with a “the web is a brochure” mindset for years. Pathways meant looking at the IA through the lens of the key audiences that came out of research: A recent graduate, for instance, would come to the Alumni website with a distinct set of motivations and needs that would yield specific actions. If these actions are supported by engagement opportunities, we can find a place where the interaction is mutually beneficial. A visitor finds what they were looking for but they could also read a related story and decide to contact their local club.

Why was a solid IA critical to the success of this content creation and migration phase? The IA was an artefact that helped us have productive conversations with every person involved in the process. It got people on board. It made things click. IA was both the map and the ethos.

We turned the (visual) IA into the spreadsheet that became our Content Matrix. You’ve seen one before, I’m sure: Each row had an index number based on the page’s position in the IA (3.0 Connect > 3.1 Young alumni > 3.1.1 Second decade, etc.) and showed the following attributes:

  • Page title
  • Page template
  • Content elements: a rough skeleton of what would be on the page
  • Priority
  • Page goal(s): What is the page’s role in our system?
Image shows a screenshot of the content matrix spreadsheet

We later added: assignment status, the contributor(s)’ name(s), the approver’s name, and the coach’s name. More on this later.

Even though the IA had been approved before moving to the Content Matrix, the transformation required some minor adjustments to both and we were soon ready for the next step.

Building the workflow

Ashley Budd (our Director of Digital Marketing) and I sketched a rough version of our workflow taking into account two important dynamics:

  • Program directors would want to review and approve the content that came from their reporting contributors
  • Brand & Communications would want to achieve the highest quality possible for this content, while not having the bandwidth to fully take it on
Image shows draft workflow: Draft>Approve>Review>Publish>Publish to CMS
Draft workflow

Our first draft envisioned a conversation between content contributors and approvers, prior to a sampling by Brand & Communications. If the sampling revealed that any adjustments were needed, the piece would go back to the contributor with some suggestions. 

After a few meetings, it became evident that this wouldn't work for two reasons. Brand & Communications would need to be sure that their editing work wouldn't be reverted by a contributor or an approver, and they were afraid that sampling wouldn’t guarantee a high enough quality.

Image shows adjusted workflow
Adjusted workflow

We collectively decided to implement a one-way final submission from approver/contributor to Brand & Communications, a moment when the content would be handed over to the editors and wouldn’t be sent back. Beyond that point, the approvers and contributors wouldn't see their content for weeks, until a couple of days before launch. It was a leap of faith but contributors and approvers showed trust in the editors. It looked like we could hit our quality standards.

Getting the team ready

A lot of this was brand new for our contributing team, and we trained them extensively. It happened in three stages:

Writing for the web

Mule Design Studio hosted a Writing for the Web workshop for the Digital and Brand & Communications teams, plus program directors (approvers). The message was clear: You are the expert of the program you run; if you can explain what it is about to a friend, you can write about it (this idea was later developed in Erika Hall’s Conversational Design).

In-house workshop

We facilitated an in-house workshop that recapped these new content writing principles for the broader audience of contributors, hammering home that if they could talk about it, they could write about it.

GatherContent and style guide

Finally, the third stage was purely technical: We showed the team how to use GatherContent, and how our custom workflow would help them go through all of their content. It was also an opportunity to introduce them to our AAD style guide and voice and tone documents.

Some extra help

The training stages were well received but we still needed to make sure that our colleagues were supported through this phase, at a time when a lot of them were busy preparing for important events (Reunion, etc.). As a result, we offered coaching to those who were interested.

Coaches were members of the Digital and Brand & Communications teams that could help them both with the workflow and the writing itself. They were assigned by expertise and affinities: Some Brand & Communications writers were used to working on specific programs and it was a good idea to leverage relationships that were already successful.

The fun stuff

We had a solid IA, a custom workflow, and a team of trained contributors. We embarked on 13 days of content creation, and this is when GatherContent became critical.

Contributors had clear assignments, with a clear goal per page, a due date, and a coach to support them. We had to fine-tune the number of email notifications that people were receiving (narrator: it was a lot), but after a while, conversations happened inside GatherContent, keeping every exchange and decision visible.

People were writing and they seemed to enjoy it a lot. The workflow’s colour coding really helped contributors understand how they were progressing and how close they were to completion.

Image shows Content workflow in GatherContent: Draft>Ready for Approval>Approval>Ready for Review>Review
Content workflow in GatherContent


Image shows Content calendar in GatherContent
Content calendar in GatherContent

Image shows project overview in GatherContent, including project status and items assigned
Project overview in GatherContent

For Ashley and me, the overview was a fantastic way to have an aerial view of the whole process and to offer help to programs who were a bit behind. It was so aligned with our ideal workflow that it felt, at times, that GatherContent was built for us. Changes in the content ended up being minimal and mostly to realign pages with our style guide or voice and tone.

Shipping time

It was now time to leverage one of the features that got us sold on GatherContent: their integration with Wordpress.

Thanks to a 1-to-1 mapping (content matrix to pages in our new Wordpress sites,) we were able to "push" content from GatherContent to Wordpress fairly painlessly.

The limitation that hit us hard was that heavily customised templates that rely on metaboxes to build pages don’t play nice with such an integration. The GatherContent plugin was, at the time, only able to push content to the body of the target pages, but not to specific content areas accessible via metaboxes. It meant that we had to move a lot of content once the migration had happened.

Nevertheless, after two intense weeks of learning how to use our new custom templates and dropping content in the right spot, the pages were ready to be production edited. Shortly after, we let contributors and approvers in for a final review, clearly communicating what could and couldn’t be changed. Launching a new site is an experiment and we have to start somewhere to see what works and what doesn’t.

The soft launch went well. Our new design paradigm works wonderfully for us and we’re constantly improving.

4 key takeaways for a successful content migration

I would have slept better, in January 2017, if I had known that:

  1. A bulletproof approved information architecture will provide clarity for the team and stakeholders, and prevent going down any rabbit holes. Everything will flow from it.
  2. Clear roles and expectations are important when designing your workflow and the actual content creation phase. Support and train each role as needed.
  3. Every team is different. Assess sensitivities and try to find solutions that build trust. Leaps of faith are more likely to happen in such an environment. The relationships that you build in the process will sustain your content governance.
  4. Having a self-imposed aggressive timeline encouraged us to write concise, conversational copy: We didn’t have time to get lost in endless discussions. The content supported each page’s goal and moved our visitors along pathways, straight to what they were looking for.

In January 2017, it was very cold in Ithaca, NY. Yet, I was not looking forward to the Spring.

We were in the middle of a 60-week double redesign of two important websites at Cornell University. Spring would coincide with content creation and migration of a couple hundred pages. It doesn’t sound that bad, right? Well, that was coming from 2000 - 3000 pages, with a lot of content contributors, reporting to a lot of program directors, who had worked for years on their content.

How did we get 30 contributors and 20 approvers to get on board with a new content paradigm, and to reduce their content by 10-15x while improving quality?

Whatever is well conceived is clearly said, And the words to say it flow with ease.

—Nicolas Boileau (1636 – 1711)

The foundation

We were lucky to work with Mule Design Studio on this project and our guiding principles came out of a solid discovery phase, informed with a lot of user research (Erika Hall, Mule’s co-founder, wrote the book: Just Enough Research).

Our collaboration produced an information architecture (IA) that we were excited about: We were going from pages to pathways, a huge leap for an organisation that had operated with a “the web is a brochure” mindset for years. Pathways meant looking at the IA through the lens of the key audiences that came out of research: A recent graduate, for instance, would come to the Alumni website with a distinct set of motivations and needs that would yield specific actions. If these actions are supported by engagement opportunities, we can find a place where the interaction is mutually beneficial. A visitor finds what they were looking for but they could also read a related story and decide to contact their local club.

Why was a solid IA critical to the success of this content creation and migration phase? The IA was an artefact that helped us have productive conversations with every person involved in the process. It got people on board. It made things click. IA was both the map and the ethos.

We turned the (visual) IA into the spreadsheet that became our Content Matrix. You’ve seen one before, I’m sure: Each row had an index number based on the page’s position in the IA (3.0 Connect > 3.1 Young alumni > 3.1.1 Second decade, etc.) and showed the following attributes:

  • Page title
  • Page template
  • Content elements: a rough skeleton of what would be on the page
  • Priority
  • Page goal(s): What is the page’s role in our system?
Image shows a screenshot of the content matrix spreadsheet

We later added: assignment status, the contributor(s)’ name(s), the approver’s name, and the coach’s name. More on this later.

Even though the IA had been approved before moving to the Content Matrix, the transformation required some minor adjustments to both and we were soon ready for the next step.

Building the workflow

Ashley Budd (our Director of Digital Marketing) and I sketched a rough version of our workflow taking into account two important dynamics:

  • Program directors would want to review and approve the content that came from their reporting contributors
  • Brand & Communications would want to achieve the highest quality possible for this content, while not having the bandwidth to fully take it on
Image shows draft workflow: Draft>Approve>Review>Publish>Publish to CMS
Draft workflow

Our first draft envisioned a conversation between content contributors and approvers, prior to a sampling by Brand & Communications. If the sampling revealed that any adjustments were needed, the piece would go back to the contributor with some suggestions. 

After a few meetings, it became evident that this wouldn't work for two reasons. Brand & Communications would need to be sure that their editing work wouldn't be reverted by a contributor or an approver, and they were afraid that sampling wouldn’t guarantee a high enough quality.

Image shows adjusted workflow
Adjusted workflow

We collectively decided to implement a one-way final submission from approver/contributor to Brand & Communications, a moment when the content would be handed over to the editors and wouldn’t be sent back. Beyond that point, the approvers and contributors wouldn't see their content for weeks, until a couple of days before launch. It was a leap of faith but contributors and approvers showed trust in the editors. It looked like we could hit our quality standards.

Getting the team ready

A lot of this was brand new for our contributing team, and we trained them extensively. It happened in three stages:

Writing for the web

Mule Design Studio hosted a Writing for the Web workshop for the Digital and Brand & Communications teams, plus program directors (approvers). The message was clear: You are the expert of the program you run; if you can explain what it is about to a friend, you can write about it (this idea was later developed in Erika Hall’s Conversational Design).

In-house workshop

We facilitated an in-house workshop that recapped these new content writing principles for the broader audience of contributors, hammering home that if they could talk about it, they could write about it.

GatherContent and style guide

Finally, the third stage was purely technical: We showed the team how to use GatherContent, and how our custom workflow would help them go through all of their content. It was also an opportunity to introduce them to our AAD style guide and voice and tone documents.

Some extra help

The training stages were well received but we still needed to make sure that our colleagues were supported through this phase, at a time when a lot of them were busy preparing for important events (Reunion, etc.). As a result, we offered coaching to those who were interested.

Coaches were members of the Digital and Brand & Communications teams that could help them both with the workflow and the writing itself. They were assigned by expertise and affinities: Some Brand & Communications writers were used to working on specific programs and it was a good idea to leverage relationships that were already successful.

The fun stuff

We had a solid IA, a custom workflow, and a team of trained contributors. We embarked on 13 days of content creation, and this is when GatherContent became critical.

Contributors had clear assignments, with a clear goal per page, a due date, and a coach to support them. We had to fine-tune the number of email notifications that people were receiving (narrator: it was a lot), but after a while, conversations happened inside GatherContent, keeping every exchange and decision visible.

People were writing and they seemed to enjoy it a lot. The workflow’s colour coding really helped contributors understand how they were progressing and how close they were to completion.

Image shows Content workflow in GatherContent: Draft>Ready for Approval>Approval>Ready for Review>Review
Content workflow in GatherContent


Image shows Content calendar in GatherContent
Content calendar in GatherContent

Image shows project overview in GatherContent, including project status and items assigned
Project overview in GatherContent

For Ashley and me, the overview was a fantastic way to have an aerial view of the whole process and to offer help to programs who were a bit behind. It was so aligned with our ideal workflow that it felt, at times, that GatherContent was built for us. Changes in the content ended up being minimal and mostly to realign pages with our style guide or voice and tone.

Shipping time

It was now time to leverage one of the features that got us sold on GatherContent: their integration with Wordpress.

Thanks to a 1-to-1 mapping (content matrix to pages in our new Wordpress sites,) we were able to "push" content from GatherContent to Wordpress fairly painlessly.

The limitation that hit us hard was that heavily customised templates that rely on metaboxes to build pages don’t play nice with such an integration. The GatherContent plugin was, at the time, only able to push content to the body of the target pages, but not to specific content areas accessible via metaboxes. It meant that we had to move a lot of content once the migration had happened.

Nevertheless, after two intense weeks of learning how to use our new custom templates and dropping content in the right spot, the pages were ready to be production edited. Shortly after, we let contributors and approvers in for a final review, clearly communicating what could and couldn’t be changed. Launching a new site is an experiment and we have to start somewhere to see what works and what doesn’t.

The soft launch went well. Our new design paradigm works wonderfully for us and we’re constantly improving.

4 key takeaways for a successful content migration

I would have slept better, in January 2017, if I had known that:

  1. A bulletproof approved information architecture will provide clarity for the team and stakeholders, and prevent going down any rabbit holes. Everything will flow from it.
  2. Clear roles and expectations are important when designing your workflow and the actual content creation phase. Support and train each role as needed.
  3. Every team is different. Assess sensitivities and try to find solutions that build trust. Leaps of faith are more likely to happen in such an environment. The relationships that you build in the process will sustain your content governance.
  4. Having a self-imposed aggressive timeline encouraged us to write concise, conversational copy: We didn’t have time to get lost in endless discussions. The content supported each page’s goal and moved our visitors along pathways, straight to what they were looking for.

Webinar Recording

Behind the scenes contentops in higher ed

An inside look at ContentOps principles, real-life examples and data-driven insights from over 60 universities.

May 16, 2018

7:30 am

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Webinar Recording

Behind the scenes contentops in higher ed

An inside look at ContentOps principles, real-life examples and data-driven insights from over 60 universities.

May 16, 2018

7:30 am

Watch now
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About the author

Thomas Deneuville

Thomas Deneuville is an interaction designer. At Cornell University’s Division of Alumni Affairs and Development, he is the director of Web Services and UX: a small team bringing design and web development together in service of Cornell’s alumni, parents, friends, and staff.

With a dual background in mechanical engineering and music (composition), Thomas is a maker and it informs his design practice inside and outside the office.

He lives in Freeville, NY with his wife and two sons, where he reads, codes, and plays the bagpipe.

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