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Beyond words: using content strategy for better UX

Web Directions would have to be my favourite Australian conference series. This year, I was honoured that John asked me to present at Web Directions Design. Here are my slides and speaker notes.


What do you think of when you hear the word content?

For many of us, thoughts immediately turn to words. After all, isn’t content the thing that’s going to replace the lorem ipsum, fill those wireframes, get the story across?

This has been one of the biggest challenges we content professionals faced. Content was seen as the thing that finishes things off. It came at the end of project. So much happened before content happened. User research happened, user experience happened, design happened, technology assessments happened. Content was always the last discipline at the table. The shoehorned afterthought.

Thankfully we have all matured in the way we see content. We’re now having content conversations earlier in the process. Teams are becoming more ‘content first’ – we go into projects with a much better idea of what content is needed to make our customers happy. And hopefully you’ve had the experience by now of working with a content strategist to help you audit, assess, plan and create your content.

Yet we still focus on the words – the editorial side of content strategy – when there’s so much more that content strategy can do to help you create a better user experience and ultimately a better product or service.

Today I want to explore some of these other elements of content strategy. I want you to walk away with some practical tools to have up your sleeve. Something to use in your next project.

I want to talk about empathy, content systems, and building the right team. So you have content that is appropriate, content that can scale, and content that is sustainable.

OK, let’s get into it.

You might have seen content strategy’s little red bible – Content Strategy for the Web by Kristina Halvorson and Melissa Rach. It has been one of the go-to resources to get your head around all the aspects of the discipline.

It broke content strategy up into 4 elements that supported a core strategy:

  • Substance – the content itself, what you needed to create to support your customers
  • Structure – the meta data, content model and templates you needed
  • People – the roles and responsibilities of the people involved in content
  • Process – the workflow to plan, create and maintain useful, usable content

At this year’s SXSW Kristina revisited this framework and made some changes to reflect the evolving nature of the field. She divided the functions of content strategy up into two domains.

  • Content design – using data and evidence to give the audience what they need, at the time they need it, and in a way they expect. This had two parts:
    • Editorial
    • Experience
  • System design – the process of defining the architecture, modules and data for a system to satisfy specified requirements. This also was divided into two parts:
    • Structure
    • Process

This breakdown reflects what I’m talking about today. We know that editorial is well taken care off, so let’s look at experience. Let’s look at embedding empathy in your content design.

Empathetic content

= content in the right tone that people can read and understand

We all know that empathy begins by putting yourself in other people’s shoes. I think from a content point of view this happens when you do a few different things.

The first is by producing content in the right tone. This is how we can show that we appreciate the context and emotion that people are experiencing when using our content. Choosing the right tone is a step to demonstrate that we care and understand.

The next is to create content that people can decode. Using words that people know makes content accessible.

Big words don’t make you look smart. They make you look inaccessible. But there’s more. Reading is part decoding or knowing the words, part comprehending what they mean in a particular context. It’s no use aiming for content that achieves a certain reading score if no one understands it. That’s why it’s also important to assess comprehension.

Take this paragraph from a life insurance letter. Keep in mind this is a letter someone would receive if they had claimed against – and have been refused – a life insurance policy. So someone close to this person has died. Do you think the tone is empathetic to the circumstance? I think it feels cold and impersonal, hardly what you want to read at a time when you might be grieving a loved one.

Now look at the words themselves. There’s nothing overly hard to read but would the average person understand ‘avoided’, ‘breach’, ‘duty of disclosure’ or ‘benefits’.

Probably not so overall, not an example of empathetic content.

Embed content in user research

So how do you avoid something like this? Start asking content questions at the start. Whether you are doing user research, mapping a customer journey or design a service, ask yourself:

  • Why is someone reading/viewing/listening to this content?
  • How might they be feeling when they are doing this?
  • What language and tone do we choose to make this content empathetic?

Show people sample content and get them to circle the phrases that make them think you ‘get’ them, or that makes them feel they could trust or feel confident in your product.

These questions will help guide the tone and language you choose.

Readability scores

Then use something like the Hemingway app to score the readability of your content.

You can cut and paste your text into the browser and it will highlight long sentences, poor word choice and general structure.

A note to say readability scores are definitely not perfect. Gobbledegook can still achieve good scores. But it is a useful guide and can point out overly complex sentences or better word alternatives.

Test comprehension

Now for the part that often gets forgotten – testing comprehension. Again, cloze tests are not perfect, but they are a good way to see if your content will be understood.

You simply choose a few paragraphs (about 130 words), remove every 6th word and get people to fill in the blanks. 60% or higher successful completion is seen as a good level of comprehension. They don’t all have to be keywords – the odd ‘the’ and ‘it’ is fine. It’s to see how people bring the words together and what they expect to read.

Would someone be able to get a high success rate when testing Facebook’s privacy pages? Perhaps not.

I’m sure if the insurance letter I showed you earlier was tested, no one would use the word ‘avoided’.

Finally, this is something interesting I saw the other day, so I haven’t used it – Alexjs.com. But I like the premise that it picks out gender favouring, polarising, race related, religion inconsiderate, or other unequal phrasing – things that we might not be aware of.

Once you’ve gone through this process, don’t forget to communicate with your content creators how to create empathetic content.

And the perfect place for this is your style guide, which of course is part of your content system.

Content systems

= infrastructure that enables people to use content the way they want

Quite a few presenters at this conference have or are going to touch on design systems – ways to scale design in an organisation by developing a collection of reusable components, guided by clear standards, that can be assembled together to build any number of applications.

Designs systems are important because we’re not just building a website anymore. We are creating interconnected experiences.

It’s the same for content.

We are past the point of thinking of content as static pages on a website. We are building eco-systems of content. Content that can be re-used, re-purposed and re-published across a number of channels.

People expect consistent content, and consistent experiences with content. When we dig in and peel back the layers of apps, sites, knowledge bases, intranets, CRMs, kiosks, chat bots, digital directories – and everything else – it doesn’t take long to realise that content is everywhere.

And as we delve even deeper, we have to figure out how content can be structured and stored so we can do all of these things with it.

As we begin to understand how people want to use the content, how they want to navigate it, filter it, categorise, we can build content systems that enables people to use content in they way they want.

Often the first place to start with this is by defining your content model.

You begin by looking at the common content types that you have in your content system and applying a standard structure to them.

For instance, when we look at this recipe we can see it follows a structure.

It has a title, an image, a list of ingredients and a method to follow.

But it doesn’t stop there. To really define this content type, we want to get into a little more detail. We want to know the quantity of ingredients, how many serves this recipe makes, if it’s a breakfast or a dinner, if there are any specific allergy considerations.

Structured content breaks content types down into smaller attributes that can be re-used and shared across systems. The trick is to define how granular you need to go. It’s easy to create a very complex content model, however this needs to be balanced by how it is going to be used.

For instance, you could probably get even more detailed in an ingredient list – but you need to determine the value of doing so.

We also saw that there were tags for these recipes to help people navigate and search through the site.

This is where taxonomy work comes in.

By developing a common taxonomy so that users can filter and search for content in the way that they want to use it.

This is how content strategy, UX and design work together.

We work together to understand how do our customers want to experience this content? What ways are we going to help them navigate and explore this content? What are they ways we want to serve this content to them?

A content strategist can help you define this language, looking across existing systems and researching using tools such as search logs, cards sorts and tree testing.

In summary, content systems are all about designing the infrastructure that lets your users experience the content they way they want to.

It can cover:

  • IA and navigation – how we should categorise information in a way that makes sense to the people using it
  • What meta data do we need to help content be accessible and searchable
  • How we might structure and store content
  • How content gets prioritised
  • How we label and tag content
  • And how do we set the people creating content up for success within the content management system

Great teams

= processes and culture that enable smart content decisions

Because people are important. I’ve always said that content is easy – people are the messy part.

Why? Well, content is a deeply personal affair. Even when you have been part of a project that has come in and helped clean up something really messy, you have to realise that at some point in time, someone took the time to create it. And very few people deliberately turn up to work to do a bad job.

We have to ensure that the shiny new digital experience doesn’t biodegrade as soon as the project team moves on. We need to equip teams to make smart content decisions in the long term – because big digital projects often result in new roles and responsibilities, a demand for new skills and a change in business processes.

There are a few things to look at to build better teams.

Roles and responsibilities

  • Sounds pretty obvious, but you need to look at who does what when it comes to content. This includes the strategic decision making around content and the day to day content creation.
  • Who is the custodian for navigation, meta data and the content model?
  • Who can publish content on the home page?
  • Who ensures that content is tested with users?

Approvals and workflows

  • Is there the opportunity to embed content people in cross functional teams?

Training and skills development

  • With the rise of AI, chat bots, omni channel content – how do we ensure our content teams have the skills required?
  • How do we keep them excited about the role that content plays in the user experience?

Recruitment and team structure

  • Does the transition to business as usual have implications for the team?
  • Can we support some of the new roles emerging? The UX writer? The UX content strategist? The content designer?


So the next time you hear the word content, I don’t want you to just think about editorial.

I want you to think about how you are going to make your content more empathetic, what content systems you need to enable people to use your content the way they want, and how are you going to support your teams? This will help you create a better user experience.


I had the wonderful opportunity to speak at CSForum Melbourne this week. Here’s a copy of my presentation and a transcript of my talk. 

Taming fiefdoms: Collaboration, content and complex stakeholders from Sally Bagshaw


In the 11th century, William the Conqueror established his favoured followers as Barons by making them tenants-in-chief of parcels of land across England. These parcels of land were called fiefdoms. Each Baron then divided his land further into fiefs, to which he would give to his knights to use to grow crops and raise livestock in return for them providing the Baron and the King military service.

The establishment of fiefdoms was an important part of feudalism. It was a way of structuring society based around the relationships derived from holding land in exchange for service or labour. It also included complex rules about taxation and inheritance, and indeed you can see the results of this medieval world in the United Kingdom today.

Many of the familiar regions you know in England and even across some parts of Europe were first set up this way.

Of course you’re asking yourself: Why the history lesson? Why should we, as modern day content professionals, care about of fiefdoms? And the answer is that, ultimately, at their very core, fiefdoms were about territory and power.

The landholders, or Barons, during that time became very powerful because of the territory they owned. Their power grew over generations as their sons inherited their property and continued to gather tax from those who worked it

In a modern organisations we see fiefdoms all of the time.

Where once you saw feudal lords fighting over their patches of turf, these days we have to manage competing priorities, battles over budget, and plain old internal politics as we try to deliver our projects.

Also, we work in a profession that at its very heart often challenges the power and control held by the people who rule these fiefdoms.

If you think of content as land, our work developing new websites, auditing and reviewing content, and creating new user experiences undermines the territory they own.

And then when you look at projects that involve governance or workflow or resources, they strike at the heart of the structure of the fiefdom itself, and can cause friction and conflict as we become the agents of change.

Individual and group fiefdoms

Robert J. Herbold, who was the Chief Operating Officer at Microsoft for most of the 1990s, notes that organisational fiefdoms can occur at the personal, the peer, divisional, and even top-down executive level. But the most common and damaging are the individual and the group fiefdom.

Individual: Individual or personal fiefdoms are really hard to work with; indeed these people are often feared, or they are avoided because of their potential behaviour. They see change as a personal threat to their turf, and can become roadblocks, difficult gatekeepers or undermine activities with their complex motives.

Group: This is when a small group of people comes together around a common task, responsibility or objective. They become very protective of their activities and any data describing them. They want to look good in front of executive management, and are experts at creating smoke and mirrors to mask what they are up to. They are great at collaboration – but only amongst themselves.

Organisations as tribes

Gerry McGovern said recently that organisations are a form of tribe. They have a deep, unstated belief that they are the centre of the universe.

[Digital transformation] … for much of your organisation—particularly senior management— requires the acceptance of a significant loss of control and power.

Traditional organisations go through a deep identity crisis when they feel they are losing control. Because the essence of traditional organisations is to control, direct, plan, and strategise.

It’s important to know that fiefdoms are created because of human nature. Most people don’t deliberately turn up for work each day and be difficult. (Although perhaps we know some people who do…).

Ultimately, there’s a part in all of us that likes control. We want to look good in front of our peers, and we want to feel that our work is important to our organisation. It’s this need for validation, the requirement for other’s approval and social status that can motivate our behaviour.

My aim today with this presentation is to give you insight into some of the dynamics at play when we work with organisational fiefdoms. Ultimately I want to share with you that by being better collaborators and communicators we can help tame the fiefdoms out there and help people do content better, manage change better, and build organisations that are more effective and efficient. Importantly, we should also look at our own biases in the process, learn to be more empathetic and aware of the human relationships within our organisations, and find ways to improve our profession in the process.

The marketing fiefdom

Turf wars over the home page, different areas of an organisation vying over visibility, and some poor sod in web services that doesn’t have the authority to say no.

It’s a classic sign of a marketing fiefdom.

Another one is a manager that has formed a bottleneck for approvals, someone who needs to see every little scrap of content before it goes live.

Or maybe it’s a team that keeps its cards very close to its chest, not giving you any notice of upcoming campaigns so new content is always a last-minute scramble.

Unfortunately, this type of environment and behaviour dilutes the value that we can bring to the table as content professionals. It puts us into a reactive cycle that makes any strategic planning or measurement very difficult.

Marketing fiefdoms are built on a need for control. After all, they are responsible for an organisation’s brand, its presence in the market, its messaging to its customers.  

And of course this is something they want to get right. It’s hard to build up a brand, but it’s very easy to damage a good reputation.

Obviously, we don’t want to go and damage the brand with the work that we do either. But sometimes when we start to peel back the layers, when you start to ask questions so you can do your job, often you find it’s really hard to get a straight answer about what you should be doing.

It’s such a common problem.

By being the keeper of knowledge, of the strategy, the marketing fiefdom thinks it can maintain a stranglehold over what content is published by the organisation. But this approach is not sustainable. People will create content with or without permission. If you don’t have a vision for people to work towards, they will go their own way. Then you end up with a very inconsistent voice and user experience. It becomes a bigger mess than what it should be.

So if you find yourself in this situation, that’s where you have to start. You have to collaborate and help them develop a clear vision for what they need in their content.

Taking the time to learn their business and helping them articulate their vision will put them at ease and take away the pressure they feel to be in such tight control.

So what does this look like?

Get everyone in a room and workshop it.

Set the scene by sharing data and user research about how content is being used at the moment, and what the user expects to be able to do with it. Also demonstrate that you understand the overall strategic objectives of the business, and explain that the purpose of the workshop is to clearly define how both sets of objectives will be met by using content.

Then it’s time for the vision activity.

There are a couple of ways to do it. I often use a mad-libs exercise—the one here is a version modified from Meghan Casey’s Content toolkit book—and get each workshop participant to fill it out individually. Then, I ask everyone to read their mad lib out.

I find it really interesting, that even when you have a variety of people in the room, you often get a pretty strong theme running through the responses. The structure of the mad-lib makes people frame their vision from the user’s or customer’s point of view – which is great because it takes away personal opinion and makes the conversation about how both customer and business goals are going to be met.

Another workshop I was recently involved with used magazine covers to extract people’s vision. It was a little confronting for some people at first – especially those who didn’t think they were creative – but in the end we had a very clear picture of where people would like to be in 5 years’ time.

On a side note: That is one thing you need to be aware of as you facilitate these types of workshop activities. Some people will jump in and get involved, no problem. Others will find the exercise more confronting. Your job is to make these people feel at ease. In the same way you do user testing – reiterate that it’s not a test and it doesn’t have to look perfect.

Once you have alignment on what the vision should be, the next step is to choose the best format to communicate it. So much good work gets buried in reports or PDFs that never see the light of day again once they are delivered.

I worked on a project recently where we had great success creating a poster that outlined our content strategy. Happily, this was not a place with an entrenched fiefdom, but it was a place that needed to be able to share its vision amongst a large amount of very different stakeholders who all created content for the website.

We decided a poster was the best way to do this. It’s something that gets printed out in a large format and stuck up onto walls – along with other material such as the personas we developed – so it’s visible and accessible.

A poster might not be the answer for your organisation. It could be something different like a printed deck of messaging cards, a video, or even training.

Whatever the format you choose, being able to communicate a clear vision in your organisation will help the marketing fiefdom feel more at ease that you have its best interests at heart, and will give you a foundation to start making changes in other areas.

The technology fiefdom

Interestingly, you’ll often see conflict between the marketing fiefdom and the technology fiefdom because both fiefdoms are focused on power. Marketing wants to respond quickly to customer demands and try out new tools. Whereas the technology department wants to protect its own processes and ways of working, yet is seen as slow moving and risk adverse, and hard to deal with in a fast moving market.

Both see themselves as rulers of their own domains. Yet, the lines that define these domains are getting blurry.

For a long time, the technology fiefdom was untouchable. It was big and scary, full of functional requirements that no one else understood, and controlled by IT managers with special vendor relationships.

But gone are the days that you had to be an IT expert to buy software. Technology is now accessible to everyone. The vendor relationship is open to whoever has the budget.

And what usually sits in these systems and software?

Content. Often content is the building blocks for these systems.

I don’t know about you, but for me often a big part of my role is to bridge the divide between marketing teams and IT. I’m there to help translate business requirements into technical requirements, and to also make sure the business understand how technical projects can and will be delivered. Let both sides be heard, so to speak.

And one way that I’ve found useful is to look at where in an organisation our content projects sit.

Years ago, Gartner coined a concept called pace layering.

It suggested that there are different layers of technology within an organisation, and each one moved at a different pace. Those layers include systems of record, systems of differentiation, and systems of innovation. Determining the layer the system you were working on lived in dictated how quickly you could expect to change or modify it.

Systems of record powered core systems, such as CRMs. Customisation of these systems happened infrequently because of the scale of these solutions. But when change was necessary, it tended to be done slowly as so much can be impacted.

Moving up the layers, you encountered systems that required tighter delivery timelines, frequent change and greater business involvement. Stakeholders expected a higher degree of speed and flexibility to accommodate new and changing business requirements throughout the process.

More recently, Gartner updated this and called it Bimodal IT – but essentially the concept was the same. Different types of technology should be managed and maintained differently, some are better delivered using methods such as Agile, and some will always be more tightly governed than others.

Robert Rose, has added a content lens to this discussion and this is where it becomes more relevant to us. He looked at the different types of technology where content people operate and what approach was needed to balance the quick pace of the market with some of the reality of enterprise systems. He also noted one of the main challenges for marketers is overbuying and under using technology tools.  

It’s easy to get carried away with bright new shiny things, but often these are overkill for what we want to do. This means that the relationship between marketing and technology is important to get value and efficiency from our technology choices.

Looking at this diagram you can see that we need to shape our own approach depending on the activities we are doing.

Think about the last project you worked on and where it might fit.

Of course even this approach is now outdated as we all have the expectation that organisations should be moving much faster than what they are at the moment.

Indeed, the idea of multi-paced systems allows fiefdoms to continue to exist by having different rules for different groups. For this reason I predict that the bimodal concept will be left behind soon as the focus turns to business across the board being able to respond quickly to opportunity.

However, many of us we will be working with these silos for a while longer. And until that time, we need to speak in a language the fiefdom understands. So I think it is still wise to respect the layer, respect the pace, and adjust what we do accordingly. We have to be the communicators, learn to identify risk and know when to push for a different way to approach these projects.

Alignment exercise

For us, these frameworks are a great conversation starter for working and building trust with the technology fiefdom, especially if you are in a large, traditional organisation.

The objective should be getting everyone in a room at the beginning of a project to align on which approach suits best.

It’s up to you what you include on your sliding scale, but here’s a starter.

We want to look at things like how quickly we expect to deliver the project, what levels of governance or approvals are involved, what the impact is to legacy systems.

Get both groups to have input into where the points go. The idea is that the points on the scale should be clustered. If they aren’t, you need to look closely at why.

So this example of where the governance point is sitting far further to the right than the others is something to be explored. Ask why? Why should this fast moving, flexible project have so much approval-based governance? What’s driving this? Can we move it back or have we answered some of the other questions incorrectly? Where is the trade off if we do move it to a different point on the scale?

There’s no right or wrong, it’s to give both parties a safe format to discuss how a project should run. It also helps us assess the real impact of the work we do, and uncover things we might not have considered such as integrations, measurement and scalability.

For example:

A taxonomy project might enterprise-wide implications, while implementing a new social media tool is the perfect low-risk way to experiment with some content ideas.

The business fiefdom

Ah, the good old business fiefdom. I’ve long said that content is easy, people are the messy part.

This is a fiefdom focused on territory – it’s a land grab. And people and resources are the currency.

Most of the content strategists I know are good with people. We are great listeners, and throughout the work we do I think we end up being taking up the role of therapist as content strategy is as much to do with relationship management as it is about content.

Even though people get very protective about content – it can be very personal – it’s not until you start to tackle the people problems that you see the real fear they have around change.

I think this is sometimes because our projects end up becoming, or are expected to be, digital transformation projects in disguise. Business fiefdoms are OK with a shiny new website with fabulous content, but start to make suggestions about around the skills mix of content creators, restructuring content teams, changing workflow, or changing the way projects are funded – well then watch out.

It’s hard because many of these deliverables are also quite intangible until they happen. Unlike content, which can be reviewed and approved, and changed – these types of activities are a much longer and complex conversation. Communication is key.

Understand money

First, don’t be afraid to talk about money.

Understand where the money comes from and what you have to do if you need to ask for more budget.

Even if you are working on an Agile project, the funding model might still be based on a longer-term program of work with any changes requiring a business case. You have to respect this and work around it, and talk with the business about the best way to approach it. Understand what activities can fit into operational business as usual and what needs to be planned for as an additional project or body of work.

The next is show, don’t tell

Much of what we do is mystery to the people we help. People are not going to welcome you into their domain if they don’t understand or feel comfortable with what’s happening. So we need to build trust by being transparent with our own processes, and help make the intangible, tangible as soon as possible.

Use internal communication tools such as wikis and the intranet to keep people up to date. Get the right people involved in workshops, and make use of showcases and the like to run people through what you have been up to.

Pay special attention to those parts of the business that will be affected by changes the most. They care about their jobs, they want to be clear about their future – so place communication as a high priority.

Bridge the gap

I think there is a real disconnect at the moment between projects being delivered using Agile, then handed back to the business to manage in the long term. What we should be doing is ingraining some of the principles of Agile development into business as usual.

Business fiefdoms and the content teams within them can benefit from the mindset of continuous improvement, iterative enhancements, and rigour around testing and learning.

But how do they do this? Unless you help bridge the gap, people go back to the habits they know.

So build in-house capabilities, especially if you are a consultant coming in to help. Plan for the right kind of training and up-skilling for MVP and beyond. If you have a large central content team, rotate people from the business in and out of the project team so they can see the inner workings of Agile first hand.

A project I am working on at the moment is taking this approach with content writers. It’s a large, decentralized organisation but it’s bringing in different people to work in the central content team during the project. These people will then go back to their normal business areas, trained and with experience, and ready to become power users that will help build a community of practice who will ensure the long-term success of the site.

For us, we wanted to show people how a more Agile approach might fit into a content lifecycle – something most people were familiar with. Again, this is a poster that has been published as part of a content toolkit on the organisation’s intranet.


In the end, just like a large website with thousands of pages that nobody has kept track of, William the Conqueror started to lose track of his Barons, the land they controlled, and the number of knights they had at their service. He needed to know how much money he could raise from the landholders so he could fight his wars against Scandinavia.

So, he ordered his own kind of inventory and audit – which became the biggest survey of its time to record how much each landowner had in land, livestock and what its value was.

The survey was completed in 1086 and became known as the Domesday book.

Aside from letting William know how much money he could raise for his army, the Domesday book was also an important step in controlling his fiefdoms. The book was considered the point of truth – and formalized land titles across the country. Indeed, it is a legal document that is still valid as evidence of title to land.

It provided governance, allocated resources and set clear roles and responsibilities for those who held land.

Unfortunately William died just as the book was being completed. But it survives to this day, almost 900 years on, in the National Archives in London and is the country’s earliest public record.

So, as we go back to work next week and begin to tame our own fiefdoms, perhaps we can take heart in the fact that fiefdoms will stand the test of time, they will always be fiefdoms, and that’s OK.

But we can help mitigate their destructive power by helping organisations have a clear vision, facilitate collaboration between our teams, put our customers at our core, and develop the right communication tools to make our organisations stronger as a whole instead.