The detective work of content strategy

Silvia Fernandez
December 28, 2021

Artwork by Silvia Fernandez

Shining a light into murky places

If you want to be an expert content strategist, try thinking of yourself as a detective. Not sure how to do that? This article offers a guide to content sleuthing, with specific examples of how we support our partners and collaborators.

Content is a murky term. It is often about words, generally synonymous with communications, and always about an experience. Content murkiness can get magnified when working in the government arena, where big quantities of content are constantly created and updated.

In working with our partners at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) on government healthcare programs, our path is always a content-rich one. Along the way, we navigate the complexities of coordinating with multiple partners on shared problems and building solutions that support internal and external audience needs. The foundation of our approach: bringing a human-centered design (HCD) mindset to content and coaching teams in making HCD an integral part of their content development and governance.

We believe this HCD-minded content strategy practice tackles murkiness at every level. Our sleuthing activities uncover hidden connections or unrecognized needs, shine light into complex spaces, and guide our path towards new possibilities.

Untangle the threads

Folks who have spent years working in the government space, including career civil servants, may be unaware of just how murky their many content collections have become. Projects across teams may unwittingly overlap and criss-cross. Changes in one arena may have unexpected repercussions across other departments like the underground web of a root system. It can be hard to know where one content initiative ends and another begins.

If you are facing a complex web of content, try starting your projects with basic detective work. Just as A1M staff are versed in the government and policy-making arena, you’ll want to gain a solid familiarity of the industry you’re entering. Get to really know your client’s subject matter and the policy that sets parameters for it. Learn about your client’s challenges, frustrations and hopes by asking questions rooted in the reality of their workplace.

By talking with clients, interviewing stakeholders, conducting content reviews and researching, you can cultivate a shared understanding of the scope and nature of their content challenge and landscape. Along the way, you may need to research related practices and projects, and hunt for hidden opportunities to improve collaboration and processes. In all cases, show up ready to untangle project threads and bring a fresh perspective to long-standing problems.

Pull out the magnifying glass

Another critical part of seeing the content landscape is analyzing it. Your analysis efforts will give you insights into content patterns and content-creating habits. In particular, when you analyze content, do so with a keen eye for:

  • How the content is structured: conduct content audits to understand site structure, navigation, taxonomy and any content gaps.
  • How the content is presented: review how documents and site pages are put together to understand the content hierarchy and how copy is written or formatted.
  • How the content is produced: review the editorial process, clearance process, and other content authoring milestones to understand how content is made.

Throughout these exercises, ideally, your work should be informed by user research, which allows you to understand what information your users need at each stage of service delivery and pinpoint potential gaps. This may include previous reports or efforts, new efforts you launch specific to the project, or (ideally) both. At the end of these exercises, you should have a clearer view of the content landscape.

Bring your bag of tricks

All too often, folks may conflate “content” with “copywriting,” and miss the critical task of ensuring words and messages align to a broader structural strategy. Content is far more than the words on a page: it is the structure of a document or website, the images and content devices (such as charts and wizards) used, the way relationships are identified across various pieces of content, and even the processes for developing content.

In our practice, we use a full bag of content tricks, rooted in our detective work. These tricks can help you solve how content may need to be restructured, determine if new assets are needed, if existing content needs revision, or if new processes should be adopted. Along the way, user research and usability testing should continue to inform this content-shaping work.

Be ready to roll out one or more of the following when you tackle content efforts:

  • Information architecture and navigation: restructure content to ensure that it is findable and organized in a logical, user-centric way. Card-sorting exercises and prototyping help us test our hypotheses.
  • Content modeling: document the various types of content needed for a project, including detailed definitions of each content type’s elements and their relationships to each other.
  • Taxonomy, tagging and data dictionaries: consider content at a granular level to ensure that it’s findable, and users can easily access relevant, related content. We may also develop detailed guides (dictionaries) for understanding and using data.
  • Content governance: identify and recommend processes, tools and channels needed for effective long-term content publishing and management over time. This may include recommendations about how editorial teams create, collaborate and publish their content.
  • Content development: determine if new content is needed and define its shape, including copy, infographics, charts and similar content devices. This may include recommendations for new topics to address uncovered audience needs.

Decipher tricky messages

Many cultures develop their own languages and shorthand vernacular. It’s a natural tendency and a sign of shared understanding of regularly used terms and concepts. But there is a real downside when these learned language tendencies lead to hard-to-understand copy and jargon that’s used merely out of habit. Websites or documents may be riddled with acronyms or obscure phases that important outsider audiences find tricky to read.

Work with your clients to understand their unique vernacular and find ways to simplify language. Revise dense documents into more accessible plain language, so users can find what they need, understand what they find, and use what they find to meet their needs. Some content might be written with a specialist audience in mind, making certain short-hand or insider terms appropriate. But when it comes to content for the general public, simple and accessible language is paramount to successfully conveying information.

Of course, you’ll also want to rely on digital writing devices to keep copy easy to scan, and develop content that follows any previous content-shaping exercises. This can include keeping content development teams aligned on content creation needs and ensuring consistent use of terms that audiences understand.

We generally apply an agile design approach to content development, producing or identifying any content that’s needed to improve service delivery. At the product level, we identify the content that’s necessary for people to best use the product. When you’re helping clients decipher their messages, consider implementing the following:

  • Copywriting/copyediting: ensure that copy is clear, concise, consistent with CMS standards, and accessible to all types of users. This extends to website copy and UX writing, and content development guidance that facilitates successful help desk interactions, targeted technical assistance, and other communication channels (e.g., emails).
  • Content templates and standards: develop formats and guidelines that individuals and teams can follow for creating content, ensuring consistency, shared terminology, and promoting error-free content publishing.
  • Editorial guidance and coaching: help individuals or teams understand the principles of human-centered design content and how to infuse their writing and content development with those principles. One-on-one sessions, workshops, lunch-and-learn get-togethers and other similar forums can be used to lead teams towards a shared understanding of making excellent content.

Guide the way

There are all kinds of reasons why an organization’s content is mired in murkiness. From a lack of high-level strategy or content resources, to inconsistent governance or disconnection from audience needs. No matter how complex the content challenges may be, we believe that collaborating with clients, listening to audiences, and combining these HCD content strategy techniques will help you shine a problem-solving light and guide teams towards smoother processes and targeted strategic solutions. We hope these content detective tricks serve you well, and invite you to please share your ideas and sleuthing tales with us.

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Jimmy is an UX Researcher with 7+ years' experience. He's adept at driving actionable insights in CivTech and private startups. Jimmy also enjoys growing plants, and spending time with his 2 dogs.

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