How intertwined are content strategy and design? Or to ask the question another way…
Should content strategy be a subset of design or a separate and independent collaborator with a design team?
I’ve worked at places where content strategy operates within a design group, as a separate but collaborative silo and a collaborator that resides within a larger UX team.
As far as content strategy working within a design group. No.
Content strategy and design should be separate, or at least independent for each other by direct authority. This, even though both are responsible for crafting and presenting front-end content experiences.
Why should content strategy and design stay separate?
While a content strategist and a designer’s work must seamlessly meld on the same space on a web page or product device user interface, they are unquestionably “brothers (or sisters) from different mothers.”
A 23andMe-like test will confirm that a full-service content strategist (the one responsible for planning, creating, structuring, reviewing, measuring and distributing content) has digital DNA that is distinct. A closer look will reveal the strategist’s extra data examination and content management chromosomes. Essentially their skills around information management. A mix that makes them different in mission from a designer or non-UX staffed design group.
Content strategy. Design’s brother from another mother.
Because of those extra chromosomes, content strategy and design end up related in purpose and overall goals, but not in function, back-end processes or responsibilities. How to describe and distinguish design and content strategy by definition:
Design is information delivery of visual, action patterns and tactile engagement. While information, the process leans toward more focus on how information is presented and human patterns for making the association between elements.
Content strategy is about information delivery and presentation but comes from the perspective of information management. The who, what, why and how and when of what to present.
Where content strategy and design meet.
They meet at content design.
Content design the collaboration between design and content strategy as to how the content chosen will be presented at the visual and surface consumption level.
The results of content design will create the point of visual contact where users encounter and interact with visual and text content. Think of it as a theatre stage where the audience will see visual props. They also see actors and the words created by writers.
Content design is the on-stage performance.
Like the actors and writers who have done a lot of work preparing before showing their work on the stage, a lot of the work and preparation that content strategists and designers present happens off stage as well.
As you go “backstage” past the content strategist’s content design contributions like microcopy, or placing or editing copy on a page that are involved in content design, the work of designers and content quickly diverge.
Think of it this way. Let’s say we want a nice faucet that delivers water.
Design’s focus will likely be about the look, patterns and action of the faucet design, usability of the faucet, where the water will come out. And as long as the presentation and functionality create a useful and satisfying moment to the user, the job of content design is done. But, in the bigger scheme of things, content design is not the only job required.
Content design is the overlapping point.
In this same faucet analogy, both design and content are concerned about how should the water come out and how much water is required for good presentation and functionality of the faucet.
Where content strategy and design diverge.
Before they meet at the intersection of content design on the faucet, content strategy is asking how much water? What type of water? Where is the water coming from? Is there enough water to meet demand? Do users really want water? Is the current water supply adequate? Where does the user want the water to come from? What temperature is pleasing to users?
Like the needs of this faucet, without assignment to other UX professionals, areas like information architecture and research around a digital project will fall to the responsibly of a content strategist for solving those pre-design portions of the content structuring and delivery experience.
If they don’t diverge, you don’t have a content strategist.
Or you have one with a very limited role (likely writing). A content strategist can work with or under a design group. However, such an arrangement is only possible if all parties are really aware of their jobs and each’s ultimate responsibilities in the customer experience process. And in a world where people, even experience teams, are still figuring out what a content strategist does, that’s not likely.
With quite a few teams, I’ve found a content strategist is often viewed more like a copywriter (the word wrangler or “voice and tone” person). This, at best, keeps the content strategist role and function at just content design or, in most cases, fill-up-this-section copywriting.
One caveat to content strategy and design working together.
Product design teams (teams charged with developing a physical or digital product) are often more conscious of a content strategist’s larger role and multiple functions. That is because content, research, development and structure is usually seen by the project team and business owners as important to achieving business goals around the product. That’s been my experiences at places like LiftDNA, Comcast and PwC as well as my own company.
That often includes ensuring customers are successful in using the product and reducing customer service support costs. Both of those outcomes make it vital for users to get to the information they need to be self-sufficient and satisfied. I suspect, as more and more companies start investing and creating more digital products that are more directly related to the bottom line, this perspective will increase.
Why the “copywriter” content strategist role is a problem.
In reality, a full-service content strategist for web development is like being a front-end developer (content design) and back-end developer (IA, content modeling, metadata) around content. Meanwhile, designers and front-end developers are more and more becoming one and the same.
In working with some design teams, some still have a blind spot for a content strategist’s work around the back-end aspects and forward flowing effects around structuring and delivering previously unstructured content – which, at the back end- phase is really information management.
This looks amazing. Love that pattern. Hope the copy fits.
A content strategy needs to plan and make decisions as to the what, where, why and how and when of structuring content across the digital platform.
When you think of it as just words, it’s tempting for design to focus on content strategy development just enough to sketch a direction design, rather how to manage and design the information experience to effectively provide the full information delivery a user demands.
That mismatch of engagement between design and content strategy can often mean, being off to the races with navigation and microscopy to frame on-page content before true content structure and content modeling across the site is established.
Yes, the development of a digital project is often iterative, so there are opportunities to review and update pages and copy.
But what tends to happen when microcopy or a proto-navigation gets too far ahead of the information delivery needs is that the design and that microcopy starts to calcify as the experience design firm and the client “get used to it.“ Even though all intellectually understand that it’s still just a prototype.
As the structure starts to calcify, it begins to resist future informational findings (or the budget no longer allows for them) and focuses on simply implementing the current design theory. What can happen is the hardening design can start to limit and new content needs or findings.
High performance. Low usability and satisfaction.
If this unbalanced process was a car, I’d suspect this is how a Bugatti, the world fastest production car gets made. Amazing design. Cool. Fast. But content wise, it only holds two passengers and that glove compartment that WILL serve as your suitcase, like it or not. An incredible, inspiring design, but unable to offer what a family would need to use effectively.
Remember, the ultimate job of any website or digital product is to deliver content in a way that satisfies a user. Not just hold content.
Design and design usability getting far ahead of content can overtake purpose, which is the proper delivery and availability of content that satisfies users.
Separate. But content strategy and design do need to work together.
Digital product performances are not guitar solos. They are more like symphonies. In fact, when only one part, like copy. design or interactive behaviors becomes the focus, it’s like one member of an orchestra playing too loud or off key, the focus moves from “the music” to the over-the-top performer.
Every performer needs to work together.
For the proper convergence and a great digital experience, both design and content strategy need to do their job well with each other.
Design has to be more in touch with how and when all the content will be delivered. This includes using visual design and patterns to be more anticipatory of making the relevant content needed findable when the “aha!” moment or decision of action comes to the user. Such action ensures that the next step in their interaction with the digital product gives them precisely the content experience they want.
This rarely happens with a “some words will go here” collaboration between copy and designer. This approach only serves to make a page or display panel logical in just the context of itself. Yes, the page, standing alone, makes sense, but it can fail to anticipate other logical user needs or next steps as they consume information.
Seamless collaboration. Seamless user experience.
Content and content strategy must structure content that gives design more freedom to present a powerful, intuitive and effortless experience. Whether it comes from design and or UX, the collaboration must make it possible for the content the user wants to get to them, intuitively with minimal effort.
Both must be focused on presentation. At the same time, they must think about the functionality and modeling of the content and how it will be moved, altered and distributed to outlets around the design. This creates a digital experience that delivers “Johnny-on-the-spot” information for users. When the user realizes they need something, the digital experience seems to provide the next step almost intuitively.
Separate, but equally involved in delivering an experience.
Design and content strategy can keep their independence while working together and advise other digital partners from their core responsibilities. This way, each is able to advocate and negotiate the balance of content and design to produce that convergence of experience.
In working together, it’s important to realize each’s strength and how they contribute to the whole experience while understanding they will do it differently.
Experience Design’s work is around problem-solving issues of:
A full content strategist can advise and support all three components.
Content design. Microcopy, whether created by designers or content strategy in a writing role can be used along with proto-navigation can do sanity-check on the digital product’s ability to hold content, set a mind map for consumers to find and access content and set modeling for how new or deeper content will be presented and under what content.
Voice and tone. Attitude is tone and it’s also brand. If a full exploration of a company digital brand and the personal user engagement have been documented, that should be used in writing or editing content to make sure the content and how content satisfied aligns with the brand.
This is where a content strategy skills for structure and information architecture come in.
How do we help users understand what their options are? And when they select and informational option, how do we get users to all the information they seek as intuitively as possible? Also, users often don’t know that they don’t know something. Working together, content strategy and design must be ready when the user suddenly realizes an informational need.
Achieving the deeper parts of content strategy lean towards a tight but independent design and UX collaboration. Helping them complete tasks by solving how to give them in the formation they want.
CONTENT STRATEGY CONSULTING
Content strategy is defining today’s successful business and leaving those too slow behind. Looking for more ideas and strategies around content marketing and delivering satisfying digital experiences for your brand, website or mobile application contact me for a free consultation.