Your software needs a content strategy, too

4 minute read

So, you’ve got a great content strategy in place, your website looks beautiful, your SEO is optimised, your analytics are showing you fantastic results, every page is visited, you have lots of conversions - congratulations!

Then your customers get your software running, and a problem occurs - it could be anything: minor file corruption, broken link somewhere, internal error, or - sometimes (rarely, in fact) - it all comes crashing down!  An error message appears, with this useful information:

“An error has occurred”

There’s not even one of those mysterious error numbers attached. In a flash, all your hard work goes down the drain as the customer vents frustration and anger at your product and your organisation. If you’re a content strategist, and this scenario, or one like it, is familiar, you have a problem - in fact, “An error - or more specifically, an omission - has occurred.”Once you’ve converted, your primary marketing tool, the main interface that your entire company has with the customer, is the software they use. If that software isn’t included in your content strategy, your strategy is incomplete.

How should we think about software content strategy?

The short, sweet, easy answer is, “just like any other part of your content strategy.” Software manages content, software acts on content, software creates content, software is content, and content strategy needs to be involved in all aspects of it:

  • Conception and design
  • User interaction
  • Interface design and related text (error messages, labels, dialogues)
  • User assistance

This means you need to be engaged from the start, and follow through on the entire development process, especially including usability testing.

There are many definitions of content strategy; I’ve cobbled mine together by borrowing from three authoritative sources: Kristina Halvorson, Richard Sheffield, and Rachel Lovinger:

"A repeatable system that defines the practice of planning for content creation, delivery, and governance, i.e., the entire editorial content development process, in support of meaningful interactive experiences."

It should be obvious that this applies to any situation where content is important. Our aim, then, is to manage the life cycle of content (including content that is embedded in software), such that we facilitate its use and delight our customers, in a coherent manner throughout the organisation.

Usability isn’t enough

If you saw a restaurant reviewed as serving “edible food,” would you be inclined to spend your money and your leisure time there? When we tell our customers that we have good “usability” that’s just what we’re saying. We need to go beyond usability, to give our customers an engaging experience that delights them. We can only do that if we have a clear view of what we’re doing.

Holistic view from the air

A content strategy can be seen as a holistic, aerial photograph of the editorial, design, and delivery principles that guide the life cycle of any piece of content, in any medium whatsoever, within the organisation. As such, it needs to make sense, and be on message, regardless of where the message occurs. All too often we forget that software is also a content delivery medium, and often a content creation medium. The content of software has to be included in the context of all the other content the organisation produces.If, for example, your web site and your software don’t look and feel anything like each other, you risk confusing your customers, even if your content strategy works everywhere else. When it comes to executing on the content strategy, like many other things, the devil is in the details, and there we need to come back down to ground level.

View from the ground

The same principles apply when integrating content strategy into software development as in any other content project - and it’s a team effort: The CS must work intimately with usability experts, interface designers and information architects to arrive at a coherent and realistic content strategy integrated into a user-friendly, effective software design. Deliverables for software are variations on their web-oriented cousins. I’ll point out two special cases here:

  • Content Requirements Worksheet
  • Software Content Audit

Content Requirements Worksheet

This is where you gather basic but important information about what content needs to be integrated into the software, where it comes from, and who the decision-makers are. For software, you will want to be sure to differentiate between these types of content:

  • Pure informational (editorial) content
  • Software structural content (messages, etc.)
  • User guidance (tool tips, help screens, other embedded aids, etc.)
  • User decision support (why the user might want to do this)
  • Software interface elements whose main purpose is to be content vehicles
  • Dynamic content (search results, etc.)
  • Live content (feeds from user forums, social networks, etc.)

Software Content Audit

The Software Content Audit has two parts: quantitative and qualitative. The quantitative audit has the same purpose and format as a web content audit.  The questions you ask are the same, but the answers and the ownership of material might be somewhat different than in a web audit.

The qualitative audit is where you attempt to determine the effectiveness of the content. Kristina Halvorson offers the following list of questions to answer for this deliverable:

  • What does the content say?
  • Is the content accurate?
  • Is the content useful?
  • Is the content used by your audiences?
  • Is the content written professionally?
  • Is the content user-friendly?

These questions work equally well for software and web sites.

Other activities include analysis of existing content against criteria,  competitive/gap analysis, and governance procedures. Critical to the governance phase is obsolescence control. We’re quite good at adding new content, but less effective at identifying obsolete content and removing it.

At the start, consider the finish

It should be obvious by now that in order to do this, the person responsible for content strategy needs to be intimately involved in product conception and design, right from day one.

If the current project is an upgrade, it may be necessary to make progressive modifications over several releases in order to implement a proper content strategy without upsetting the installed user base. As in other areas, you’ll need a maximum of tact, diplomacy, flexibility, and persuasion.

It’s not always easy, but it’s always worth it.


Content Audit Spreadsheet

A template to audit your content inventory to identify gaps and gain insights around your content.

About the author

Ray Gallon

Ray is the owner of Culturecom, a consultancy in technical content strategy and architecture based in the Montpellier, France area. This work suits him, as he still doesn't know what he wants to do when he "grows up" - even after a long career in communications of all sorts, from the media to IT, and he gets to do it all in this profession. He is a researcher and co-founder of The Transformation Society, a new research institute in Barcelona, Spain, and is a director of the Society for Technical Communications. You can read his blog, Rant of a Humanist Nerd, or follow him on Google Plus or Twitter.

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