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Content workflow essentials: timing, skill sets and collaboration

Content workflow essentials: timing, skill sets and collaboration

7 minute read

Content workflow essentials: timing, skill sets and collaboration

7 minute read

Content workflow essentials: timing, skill sets and collaboration

Lizzie Bruce

Freelance Content Consultant

As a freelance digital content professional, I’ve seen a lot of different workflows. That’s not always a bad thing: it’s not necessarily one size fits all.

But there are certain must-have elements you need to include in your workflow. And, for efficiency and best outcomes, some things are better happening before other things, not the other way round.

Do things in the right order

Content or design, what comes first?

Which way round does your organisation or team do these:

A) Create your high fidelity design prototype.

B) Write microcopy.

I recommend starting with B. Write microcopy and test with users before developing a high fidelity prototype, so that you can be sure the design is working to best present the copy that users need. Otherwise you could end up with text that’s dictated by how well it squashes into a character-limited space.

Building or testing, what comes first?

Which of these does your organisation or team do first:

C) Create your new digital service.

D) Test with users.

D first gets my vote. If you test with users early in the process you can change things easily as you go along. It might be that your whole direction needs to change. This is so established in agile design methodology that there are product design jargon terms for this: changing as you go along is “iterating” and deciding to change direction is “pivoting”. 

If you test with users as a “final check” just before you go live, when everything is “finished” it’s too late, or at least it will cause delays and cost much more than it needs to, to fix things properly. It’s likely that this will be a retro-fix rather than a re-design and re-develop – this will not be optimal for users. Doing things that are not ideal for users is likely to cost your organisation in the long-term: users get frustrated, users do not re-order.

Researching or writing, what comes first?

And how about these:

E) Write.

F) Research user needs and language.

F every time. It sounds very obvious. But surprisingly often editors and writers will get a brief or a title and simply write according to their own response to it, using vocabulary they’ve decided is correct – or worse funny. Some examples: in-house terms, overly formal expressions, ambiguous “witty” wordplay or other unclear language. Especially if they are not familiar with content design principles, which focus on user needs

Researching your users helps you realise you need to call it Brexit, not EU Exit. Otherwise your content will not show up in their searches, whether those be manual or voice.

So, the best flow for the above would be: 

  1. Research user needs and language
  2. Write microcopy
  3. Create your high fidelity design prototype
  4. Test with users
  5. Make changes based on user feedback
  6. Create your new digital service

Include the right skills, research and expertise

It’s very common for digital projects to go ahead without the full set, or even a partial set, of the necessary skills, research and expertise to guarantee success. They could be missed out altogether, or, possibly even worse, not listened to in favour of a product manager or stakeholder’s opinion. 

Bring the right people in, and remember that you brought them in for their experience and advice: listen to them and act on what they advise. You can read more in my article about multidisciplinary teams.

Scenario 1: everything but the content designer

You have a 19 stage publishing process, with committees of experts signing content off and the press team involved from the start. It takes a long time, but finally everyone involved is happy for the content to be published. 

No one internal looks at it again. 

A long while later someone, maybe in IT, looks at the page stats. No one external has looked at it either. 

This content cost your organisation a lot of money to produce but it was a complete waste of time. You can work out how much by calculating how many hours were spent by how many people and multiplying by the average hourly staff cost. More on this in Becky Taylor’s article on calculating the cost of content creation.

Why did this piece of content fail?

It was in the wrong place (FAQs/blog/social/website).

It was not suitable (no one needed it).

It used the wrong words (jargon, complex language).

In short, content design skills were missing from your workflow. There was no content expertise to research the audience’s online behaviour: which platform would the content have been best placed in. There was no research into user needs for the content. There was no research into user language. The content design role does all of this. Read Sarah Richards’ article on what content design is

Creating effectively, useful, looked at web content is more than just typing. Read more in my article on why you need a content designer.

Include content designers in your team.

Scenario 2: content professionals used as button pushers

Quite recently, I met an Oxbridge educated content editor who was not allowed to edit content, only to upload it on to the CMS and publish it.

Their valid suggestions around sentence structure, clear language and relevance to users were being ignored.

Don’t ignore skilled professionals, either that you bring in for a project or who are already on site and part of your in-house permanent team. 

Include them early, include content professionals from discovery if you can.

Scenario 3: experts writing the content

This is a common issue and may well overlap with the first 2 scenarios.

It’s a bit of a delicate one. Subject matter experts are experts at their subjects. It’s understandable that they should feel some sense of responsibility toward the subject they are literally employed to share their expertise on.

However, content designers are also expert at their subject, content design. They are also employed for their expertise.

Issues I’ve experienced when content written by subject matter experts gets published directly, without any changes:

  • jargon left in that users do not understand
  • dense, lengthy prose
  • hard to scan as no writing for web techniques applied
  • illogical content hierarchy 
  • rambling narrative rather than concise points
  • repetition

Content design is a skillset. It includes:

  • understanding the science and psychology of online reading
  • being adept at writing in clear language
  • removing complexity: making things simple for people to understand, even when policies and processes are not straightforward
  • researching users and their vocabulary

Bring subject matter and content design expertise together

Content designers and subject experts pair-working from early on in the writing of a piece works well. This involves interviewing the subject expert early on, or going through a skeleton content sketch or first draft with them to: 

  • get all the details
  • check understanding of concepts
  • ask any specific questions 

The content designer will put the information users need to know into plain language and research the vocabulary they use.

When it comes to what’s traditionally been called “sign off” or “approval” the subject expert should treat this as an opportunity to fact check. Are the facts clear and correct? It’s not a chance to re-introduce jargon and complexity. If nuance is missing, explain that to the content designer who will craft it into clear, simple language that’s easy to scan read and inclusive of users with low literacy or cognitive challenges. 

Try to do pair writing and fact checking sessions together, in person or virtually. Avoid Google or Word docs sent back and forth with margin comments.

Better for the product, better for the user – and better for you too

If you do things at the right time, and involve the right people, your workflow will be a lot healthier. Your outcomes will be more robust. As such, you will be able to trust your workflow and depend on it as a helpful infrastructure, rather than approach it as a list of checkboxes, minefields and approval chasing.

As a freelance digital content professional, I’ve seen a lot of different workflows. That’s not always a bad thing: it’s not necessarily one size fits all.

But there are certain must-have elements you need to include in your workflow. And, for efficiency and best outcomes, some things are better happening before other things, not the other way round.

Do things in the right order

Content or design, what comes first?

Which way round does your organisation or team do these:

A) Create your high fidelity design prototype.

B) Write microcopy.

I recommend starting with B. Write microcopy and test with users before developing a high fidelity prototype, so that you can be sure the design is working to best present the copy that users need. Otherwise you could end up with text that’s dictated by how well it squashes into a character-limited space.

Building or testing, what comes first?

Which of these does your organisation or team do first:

C) Create your new digital service.

D) Test with users.

D first gets my vote. If you test with users early in the process you can change things easily as you go along. It might be that your whole direction needs to change. This is so established in agile design methodology that there are product design jargon terms for this: changing as you go along is “iterating” and deciding to change direction is “pivoting”. 

If you test with users as a “final check” just before you go live, when everything is “finished” it’s too late, or at least it will cause delays and cost much more than it needs to, to fix things properly. It’s likely that this will be a retro-fix rather than a re-design and re-develop – this will not be optimal for users. Doing things that are not ideal for users is likely to cost your organisation in the long-term: users get frustrated, users do not re-order.

Researching or writing, what comes first?

And how about these:

E) Write.

F) Research user needs and language.

F every time. It sounds very obvious. But surprisingly often editors and writers will get a brief or a title and simply write according to their own response to it, using vocabulary they’ve decided is correct – or worse funny. Some examples: in-house terms, overly formal expressions, ambiguous “witty” wordplay or other unclear language. Especially if they are not familiar with content design principles, which focus on user needs

Researching your users helps you realise you need to call it Brexit, not EU Exit. Otherwise your content will not show up in their searches, whether those be manual or voice.

So, the best flow for the above would be: 

  1. Research user needs and language
  2. Write microcopy
  3. Create your high fidelity design prototype
  4. Test with users
  5. Make changes based on user feedback
  6. Create your new digital service

Include the right skills, research and expertise

It’s very common for digital projects to go ahead without the full set, or even a partial set, of the necessary skills, research and expertise to guarantee success. They could be missed out altogether, or, possibly even worse, not listened to in favour of a product manager or stakeholder’s opinion. 

Bring the right people in, and remember that you brought them in for their experience and advice: listen to them and act on what they advise. You can read more in my article about multidisciplinary teams.

Scenario 1: everything but the content designer

You have a 19 stage publishing process, with committees of experts signing content off and the press team involved from the start. It takes a long time, but finally everyone involved is happy for the content to be published. 

No one internal looks at it again. 

A long while later someone, maybe in IT, looks at the page stats. No one external has looked at it either. 

This content cost your organisation a lot of money to produce but it was a complete waste of time. You can work out how much by calculating how many hours were spent by how many people and multiplying by the average hourly staff cost. More on this in Becky Taylor’s article on calculating the cost of content creation.

Why did this piece of content fail?

It was in the wrong place (FAQs/blog/social/website).

It was not suitable (no one needed it).

It used the wrong words (jargon, complex language).

In short, content design skills were missing from your workflow. There was no content expertise to research the audience’s online behaviour: which platform would the content have been best placed in. There was no research into user needs for the content. There was no research into user language. The content design role does all of this. Read Sarah Richards’ article on what content design is

Creating effectively, useful, looked at web content is more than just typing. Read more in my article on why you need a content designer.

Include content designers in your team.

Scenario 2: content professionals used as button pushers

Quite recently, I met an Oxbridge educated content editor who was not allowed to edit content, only to upload it on to the CMS and publish it.

Their valid suggestions around sentence structure, clear language and relevance to users were being ignored.

Don’t ignore skilled professionals, either that you bring in for a project or who are already on site and part of your in-house permanent team. 

Include them early, include content professionals from discovery if you can.

Scenario 3: experts writing the content

This is a common issue and may well overlap with the first 2 scenarios.

It’s a bit of a delicate one. Subject matter experts are experts at their subjects. It’s understandable that they should feel some sense of responsibility toward the subject they are literally employed to share their expertise on.

However, content designers are also expert at their subject, content design. They are also employed for their expertise.

Issues I’ve experienced when content written by subject matter experts gets published directly, without any changes:

  • jargon left in that users do not understand
  • dense, lengthy prose
  • hard to scan as no writing for web techniques applied
  • illogical content hierarchy 
  • rambling narrative rather than concise points
  • repetition

Content design is a skillset. It includes:

  • understanding the science and psychology of online reading
  • being adept at writing in clear language
  • removing complexity: making things simple for people to understand, even when policies and processes are not straightforward
  • researching users and their vocabulary

Bring subject matter and content design expertise together

Content designers and subject experts pair-working from early on in the writing of a piece works well. This involves interviewing the subject expert early on, or going through a skeleton content sketch or first draft with them to: 

  • get all the details
  • check understanding of concepts
  • ask any specific questions 

The content designer will put the information users need to know into plain language and research the vocabulary they use.

When it comes to what’s traditionally been called “sign off” or “approval” the subject expert should treat this as an opportunity to fact check. Are the facts clear and correct? It’s not a chance to re-introduce jargon and complexity. If nuance is missing, explain that to the content designer who will craft it into clear, simple language that’s easy to scan read and inclusive of users with low literacy or cognitive challenges. 

Try to do pair writing and fact checking sessions together, in person or virtually. Avoid Google or Word docs sent back and forth with margin comments.

Better for the product, better for the user – and better for you too

If you do things at the right time, and involve the right people, your workflow will be a lot healthier. Your outcomes will be more robust. As such, you will be able to trust your workflow and depend on it as a helpful infrastructure, rather than approach it as a list of checkboxes, minefields and approval chasing.

Webinar Recording

Co-design: How to build products and services that work

Learn how to co-design with users, writers, designers, developers and subject experts to make sure the services you create work for the people who use them.

July 16, 2020

4:00 pm

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Webinar Recording

Co-design: How to build products and services that work

Learn how to co-design with users, writers, designers, developers and subject experts to make sure the services you create work for the people who use them.

July 16, 2020

4:00 pm

Watch now
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About the author

Lizzie Bruce

Lizzie provides content consultancy through Cake Consultancy Ltd. Motivated by creating user-focused, inclusive content she leads on Content Design London's collaborative Readability Guidelines project, and helps with content research, training and reports. She's also a freelance content designer at Scope, and writes for Prototypr and Digital Drum. With 17 years’ cross-sector content experience, including GDS, John Lewis and RNIB Lizzie's keen to share her learnings, and is currently creating a user-friendly intranet content resource.

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