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Content Strategy

How to define a successful content hierarchy

Jon Dodd • 7 minutes

When planning a website redesign, don’t jump straight in without thinking about the business goals and user needs and how these can be met with a focused and effective content hierarchy.

It’s essential to consider how best to structure rich content pages, such as landing pages and the homepage, to ensure users are able to find what they came for to accomplish their desired task.

As well as understanding what’s going on those core pages, a clear visual hierarchy of prioritised content is necessary. In this article, I’ll discuss a methodology to ensure that the pages we make are fit for purpose.

ABC: Analytics Before Content

Analytics are a good starting point. While I sit at one side of a table and say “In my experience of designing for the web I think users will do X” the client may sit on the other side and say “Well we think they’ll do Y.” What trumps all of that is actual data, via analytics, and looking at what users are really doing or at least trying to do.

Don’t ignore your data. Look at what users are actually doing, or trying to do

If you don’t have analytics set up on your current system or you’ve only had it a matter of days, you won’t garner much by the way of solid conclusions, so come back to this at a later date.

Once you have access to the analytics, you should:

  • Set a suitable date range to make sure you’re looking at a decent spread of data. Six months is a good range to use, but consider things like when the last big change to the site was. If you did a redesign four months ago, anything before that will be largely useless
  • Identify what pages or areas are most popular. Look at those pages at the same time to see what’s on the page to get an idea of what your users are wanting to read
  • Look at is the in-page behaviour tool that Google Analytics and others offer. This provides a breakdown of page clicks and gives insight into what users visiting those pages are doing. Take a look at your homepage to see what content is most popular and what isn’t, and you’ll start to build a picture of what you need to do

The aim of the analysis is to look at what’s popular in certain areas of the site and what people are trying to find, then serve that content on key pages. If you find that a number of users are going to your emergency contacts page, think about adding some of that key content to the homepage in a prominent place.

Keeping your eyes on the prize

Another key factor in ensuring that rich content pages, and indeed our websites in general, are successful, is having a clear strategy and direction for what we want the site to achieve. It might seem really obvious, but especially on larger projects, you’d be surprised how many kick-off meetings I’ve sat in and discussed project goals, only to find out people that thought their views aligned actually want completely different things. Stakeholders will have their own priority list and agenda, which is good, as a business needs the different areas of focus, but if we throw everything at a user we won’t achieve a lot.

Prioritise your goals. If you throw everything at a user you won’t achieve a lot

Goals themselves need to be considered and structured. If you set the goal of ‘Let’s make the site awesome!’, while the intention (and enthusiasm) is there, the word ‘awesome’ is too subjective, and how do we know if we’ve met that goal at the end? What defines minimum awesomeness?

You don’t have to follow this verbatim, but I use the following formula which seems to work well for my clients:

We want ___ (action) ___ , because ___ (reason) ___ , so that ___ (objective) ___ .

This works because we first set out what we want to do (the action) and then we describe why we want to do it (the reason), because if we don’t have a reason for doing something, why are we doing it? Lastly, and most importantly, we describe the measure of success (the objective) as we’ll need a way of knowing if we’ve achieved what we set out to.

An example of this might be:

We want to encourage more users to apply online rather than over the telephone, because it only costs us 2p for an employee to process an online application as opposed to 45p for telephone, so that we see a 50% increase in the number of online applications in the next six months.

The formula is handy when someone in the project team tries to crowbar the wrong content in, as you can simply enquire as to which goal the new content aligns to.

Don’t write too many of these statements. Keep them over arching and make sure they are visible through the project. Look at the content blocks for these rich content pages and see which ones align to the project goals the most. If you’re building a homepage and the first thing you’re putting on there is a large space dedicated to marketing messages, and your project goals is similar to the example used above, think about putting the top tasks for online services before the marketing.

Remember the humans

We also need to bear in mind that we’re producing content for people. People have a range of technical abilities, goals, mindsets and patience, so we’ll want to consider this with some user scenarios and journeys.

While we can’t tell exactly what our actual users are thinking, we can start putting ourselves in their shoes with fictional examples.

Write user scenarios to put yourself in your audiences’ shoes

A good method for writing the user scenarios is to split them into two paragraphs. The first will describe the person in general; who they are, where they are and what their problem or challenge is. The second will set out what they are coming to the site for, how they found the site and what their current mindset is.

GCblog-projectboard

An example of a project board at Un.titled, where we keep our user scenarios, project goals and idea exploration visible throughout the project.

Here’s an example of one I’ve recently used for a client:

Kyle is an award winning sculptor from Doncaster, known for creating installations depicting industrial scenes in a natural setting using found materials. Commissioned by the National Trust for a large installation, he wants to depict the opposite – showing a natural scene in an outdoor industrial setting, using only industrial materials.

Having never worked with metals before, he is worried about what he will need to do to treat the material, and curious as to its potential. Being a struggling bohemian artist, he doesn’t own a computer, so uses a local library, using an old and slow machine running IE9.

It may seem like over zealous story telling (and sometimes it is) but everything that’s in there is for a reason. In the example above, we’re saying Kyle has got a commission from the National Trust, so it’s a big deal and he needs answers rather than just browsing, but he is an artist and “curious” as to the potential of metal, so he’ll be open to certain types of content, especially case studies.

A clear picture should be forming, through analytics and project goals, of what content should go on what pages and in what visual order. Let the user scenarios be the first test for this. Be sure to include all stakeholders when you’ve written these, getting input and sign off, and keep them visible throughout the project.

Workshoppin’

If you haven’t got buy in from everyone involved in the project, conducting a workshop is a great way for these people to get their voices heard, ideas in the hat and get educated on what is trying to be achieved.

How to run a content prioritisation workshop to engage your stakeholders

An exercise that always gets the discussion started (and uncovers some interesting results) is getting the whole project team to rank page content on what’s a priority.

You will need:

  • Cue cards
  • Post-its
  • Good clear marker pen
  • A time and place you can get all stakeholders in a room
  • Courage to manage a room of opinionated people
  • Biscuits

Prep:
What you’ll need to do before the workshop is pick a key rich content page you want to focus on.

Then follow these practical steps:

  • Write down all the content blocks for that page (use a name that is more descriptive of the content than how it’s presented e.g. ‘marketing messages’ not ‘carousel’)
  • Get an equal amount of post-it notes and number them 1 to 10 (or however many content blocks you have)
  • Spread the cards across the table and put the post-its at the side in a vertical line
  • Load up the current website page you’re reviewing, and put a post-it number on each card, allocating a number based on its visual prominence on the page

Essentially what you’re doing is scoring each element based on how much it gets your attention, for example a large carousel or hero image will probably score a 10, whereas a small ‘further reading’ links block down the page might only score a 1. Do this exercise and document the results for reference.

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On the day:
Start with a presentation about your findings so far. Talk about the analytics, project goals and user scenarios. This will help to get the cogs turning and make sure people are all on the same page, as it will become apparent quite quickly if different stakeholders or departments have different ideas of what the site/page should do. Think of it more like a discussion than full on formal presentation, but you’ll be the one to keep it on track and in motion.

When you’ve done that, it’s time for the workshop. You will be running a similar exercise to the one you did in your prep, but where as before you were scoring on visual prominence, this time you’ll be awarding points for desired priority. When you run the exercise on the day, everyone is doing this for what they would want the page to be.

GCblog-workshop

A recent card sorting workshop I ran in the Un.titled board room. Large table and biscuits are a must.

Keep blank cards handy in case we need to create new content that doesn’t exist on the current page, and don’t be afraid to play devil’s advocate to get people talking. Challenge them on why something should have a high/low score and be sure to reference analytics/goals and user scenarios when doing so.

This should lead to discussion about content in terms of what it’s doing rather than how it looks. If we did label the carousel as ‘carousel’, stakeholders might score it a 10 as they love the carousel and suggest “everyone has one”, but if we call it ‘marketing messages’ they’ll think about the content only, and, for example, if one of your project goals is to focus less time on marketing messages and more on guiding users to online tasks they can complete online, we’ll have to score it lower.

When everyone is done, reveal the scores from the current site you did in the preparation task. There are likely to be disparities that stakeholders weren’t aware of until now. This is valuable if you suspect there is someone in the group who thinks the site/page works fine as it is and doesn’t need changing.

A clear list of what needs to be on the page and in what order, taking into account analytics, business objectives and the sort of person who visits the site, will be the outcome from this. You’ll have clear insight as to how to structure and design pages around your content.

Final thought

The methods outlined in this article will set you on the right track for your content production. You’ll be able to use analytics to determine what content people want and align business objectives with project goals. The user scenarios surface how users might want the content and all of this will inform your content hierarchy. Introducing these practices into your own process and workflow will ensure content is purposeful and your next website redesign project is successful.

How to Define a Successful Content Hierarchy

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About the Author

Jon Dodd

Senior User Experience Designer, Un.titled

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