Content strategy: a case study in Design Thinking
Some people have asked, “how are content strategy and design thinking similar?” The more important question (or set of questions), though, is, “what is content strategy, how is it related to design thinking, and why does it matter?”
Content strategy is the deliberate planning and implementation of what kind of content to include, and where to include it, in a given product or service. Writers of this topic often quote Kristina Halvorson, content strategy expert and author of Content Strategy for the Web, who says content strategy “plans for the creation, delivery, and governance of useful, usable content.” Content strategy spans multiple disciplines, and the field of user experience design is no exception.
Content Strategy: The How
So how does one go about implementing effective content strategy? Interestingly enough, good content strategy employs a process that is extremely similar to the Design Thinking process of learning about users needs, identifying patterns and insights, and designing potential solutions in response to findings from user research. While Design Thinking is a popular approach applied to limitless types of real-world user problems and needs, content strategy is scoped to the design and delivery of information. With content strategy, we ask questions like, “What are our users’ needs, beliefs, and behaviors around the information we convey through our product? When it comes to the information in our product, where are users satisfied? Where are our users’ pain points and frustrations?” Everything from the specific labels on navigation bars to the videos, photos, and audio we include in our products are considered information, or content, and content strategy is the process of determining how to best utilize and frame those pieces of content to deliver pleasurable, compelling experiences to our users.
Is it starting to sound like Design Thinking yet? Consider the content strategy framework that Morten Rand-Hendriksen introduces in this online workshop. Rand-Hendriksen says that content strategy is a four-phase process:
- People, Motivations, Goals
- Analysis and Structure
- Guides, Templates, and Workflows
- Creation and Management
For reference, the widely-used phases of Design Thinking are:
- Discovery and Understanding (Empathy Research)
- Defining the Problem
Breaking it Down: A Design Thinking Approach to Content Strategy
The content strategy process that Rand-Hendriksen shares is essentially a form of Design Thinking, with information design and delivery as the problem on which the process is focused. First, the content strategy process starts with understanding the users, and their motivations and goals. We use primary and secondary research to identify target users and to learn about their attitudes, goals, needs, and behaviors around what kind of information is delivered, and how it’s delivered. We then use tools like personas and user empathy maps to guide how we make content design decisions along the way. With content strategy, it’s especially crucial to consider the multiple real-life scenarios in which users engage with a given product, and to design accordingly. Good content strategy effectively designs and delivers content to users whether they are engaging with our product while fully attentive, while juggling multiple apps, or while tending to in-person experiences.
The second phase of content strategy, Analysis and Structure, is a blend of the Problem Definition and Ideation phases of mainstream Design Thinking. Analysis and Structure begins with synthesizing key findings around user needs from the first stage and considering key patterns around what, where, and how content should be delivered. We may conduct further user research to understand user expectations around content structure and organization, which informs the development of key planning deliverables such as site maps and user flows. As we identify trends in how users expect and wish to see content presented, as well as the transitions they expect to experience from one part of the product to another, we can begin to generate sample content design and delivery. Through sketching and wireframing, we can begin to loosely map out what kind of content we might include in our product, and where.
Once we develop a baseline structure for our content, we move into Rand-Hendriksen’s third phase of content strategy: Guides, Templates, and Workflows. Here, we are shifting from Ideation to Prototyping; as you can see from the name of the phase, we create several deliverables that play critical roles in the final content delivery. As we build on sitemaps and user flows to develop the actual content, we consider factors such as voice and tone of our content. How do we convey content to our users? This is where the power of storytelling comes into play. As content strategist Steph Hay explains, good content strategy is storytelling — it’s about how products connect emotionally with users, and it can make or break how users experience the product.
Finally, we shift into the Creation and Management phase of content strategy. This is where we test, monitor, and iterate our content in high fidelity. And of course, in classic Design Thinking fashion, the content strategy processis cyclical, and we return to earlier phases as we develop and adjust our content to continuously improve it.
I’m incredibly optimistic of the power of DT but also always on the lookout for design thinking success stories and examples. As I’ve shared my knowledge of design thinking with others, I’ve frequently been asked how often it delivers demonstrable results and how broadly it can be applied. Below is my collection of design thinking success stories that have helped reinforce my conviction that design thinking can deliver incredibly powerful results and be applicable to everyone.
Consumer Packaged Goods
If you’re at the beach and would rather read an actual book full of design thinking case studies, I’d recommend ‘Solving Problems with Design Thinking: Ten Stories of What Works’ by Jeanne Lietdka.
In summary, there are plenty of available and powerful design thinking success stories, that will hopefully increase your conviction in the strength of DT. I’m always on the lookout for new examples and will continue to add to this list. Please don’t hesitate to share any great examples that I’m missing and continue to check back in as this list grows in size!