#460 How To Keep Your Content User-Centric: Interview with Tess Underhill

In Content Marketing, Internet Marketing Podcast, The Digital Marketing Blog by Tess UnderhillLeave a Comment

It can be hard to know where to start when designing the content you need for your business or organisation, especially if you have a large amount of new content to produce.

You may have just undertaken a content audit or established that you aren’t quite up there with your competitors and found there’s a real need to produce some compelling content to get you more visibility.

You also may have uncovered a need to improve user experience elements of your site by making the current content, less wordy and easier to read. But, where do you go from there?

Your business ultimately needs to get across a key message in your content to be successful and achieve its aim, by communicating succinctly to your target audience. However, this message can often be lost during the production of content down to a number of reasons, with these being the most common:

  1. Not enough research into who your users are.
  2. Producing content off the back of assumptions about your users.
  3. Not using the language that your users use.
  4. Not getting the message or story to come across consistently and connect with your users in the content you produce, because your team don’t have a clear enough idea of who your users are.

With the recent Google algorithm update being all about content relevancy, it’s become more important than ever to create ‘relevant’ user-centric content in order to be found online and to ensure you have a positive brand reputation.

Google algorithms are getting smarter at knowing what is ‘relevant’ to a human being, moving a long way away from being fooled by dated black hat techniques. However, it is not enough to just be relevant and do well in the SERPs. You’ll also need to cater to the users’ needs implicitly in order to keep them on the page and returning to your site.

Without well-informed UX design and user-centric content, it’s hard to expect people to convert or see value in what you do as a business and become a loyal customer. Without this element, it makes all the hard work to get traffic to the page in the first place kind of irrelevant.

What does content relevancy have to do with user-centricity?

Relevant content is designed around what the user needs as a primary focus.

With that in mind, GOOD relevant content should always provide each individual a positive user experience (UX) by making the content easy to understand, and hopefully a pleasure to consume.

We’ve all had one of those “wow this is great to use” moments with a website, or have read an article which completely services our needs and more, leaving us totally satisfied and informed.

The key to user-centric content is in recreating this feeling with the content that you produce.

If you aren’t willing to put the required time and budget into creating user-centric content, you’re essentially gambling with the money you are putting in to acquire traffic to the site.

This study shows that 79% of people who don’t like what they find on one site will go back and search for another site and that 81% of shoppers research online before they buy.

Are these really percentages of your traffic you can afford to lose to your competitors through not having good UX and user-centric content?

When considering user-centricity from a search perspective, SEMrush have recently published a detailed article explaining why it’s crucial to your SEO to also have good UX. The article explains that ‘good UX’ means fast-loading page speeds, mobile first optimisation, and image size compression alongside other technical SEO elements. Everything that helps Google achieve its primary objective to make the search experience the best it possibly can be for its users.

What is the difference between UX and Content Design?

For anyone that hasn’t had much of an introduction into UX or Content Design before and works in digital, I would recommend going to some talks at BrightonSEO, UX Brighton, or to UX Camp in Brighton.

There are also UX events all over the world that are gaining traction and discussing innovation in user-centric design. If Slack is your thing (it’s great, I love it), there are many public UX slack threads you can join, and Twitter profiles to follow like UX Guy and Ladies that UX.

While UX and UI (User Interface) design roles have been around for well over ten years, Content Design as its own element of the design process is relatively new and is rapidly increasing in importance.

Although there’s no exact dictionary definition for Content Design, it incorporates UX into the writing process by being exclusively focused on the user, and the best possible way of communicating with them to satisfy their need.

Overall, Content Design should improve a user’s experience and the ability for human interaction. It is measured by how effectively the message is communicated to the user and not just to robots, internal teams or software developers and it uses the same methodologies and processes you would apply to visual design. The internet grows and transforms by the day, and with the phenomenal amount of content out there. Ensuring that what you write and how it appears on the page is focused on user-centricity will give you a better chance of your content being successful.

For an excellent example of how structured Content Design has been implemented, look within the Government Digital Service (GDS), and its comprehensive content guide.

If you’re feeling like you want to brush up on your practical skills to make sure you’re incorporating Content Design, Scroll runs really good introductory Content Design bootcamps. I’ve attended this bootcamp and found it super interesting as someone who’s never worked in government or within a council. Content Design London also have a collection of workshops and courses to choose from. Both courses teach the importance and process of working in Agile environments when producing content, similar to that of software design.

There are also a multitude of free resources online in the form of podcasts, blog and talks to help you understand the definitions of UX and Content Design and their processes.

So, now you know you need to be aware of UX and Content Design, here are my next steps to get you creating user-centric content!

1.     Start with Your Users and What You Know About Them

There are obviously a lot of different ways that you can communicate with your audience, and sometimes internally within a business there can be mixed opinions about how to do so.

Establishing WHO your users are, WHAT their need is, and WHY, will really help you begin the content design process.

You may have already established a while ago or are a new company that still needs to ascertain exactly who their users are but either way, data will help to inform any gaps in your business’s knowledge.

2.     Understand the Difference Between a User Need, and an Organisations’ Need

Many businesses make assumptions about their users without investigating and outlining a clear user need first. This can often cause issues with content production later down the line as there isn’t a need to refer back to when making approvals before publishing.

It’s important to first distinguish between business needs and user needs. For example, let’s say you have a clothing e-commerce website. Your organisation’s need is likely to be focused on sales and brand awareness, however, your user’s needs will be focused on finding that perfect outfit for a friend’s wedding so they can look their best and show off their personality.

3.     To Understand More About Your Users, Start with Creating User Stories

When it comes to creating user-centric content, you should always have a user story and need in mind before producing the content.

This helps to instil empathy for the user from the very beginning. Having empathy for the user gives you something to always draw back to, to justify content relevancy and increase stakeholder buy-in for content creation.

You might have more than one user story for your content as you may have a mixed target audience, but you’ll likely be able to narrow it down to 2 or 3 user profiles.

Creating user stories is a skill and as such, it is always worth getting a few heads together to produce your who’s, what’s and why’s. The below video details how to create a good user story for software development, and it’s the same structured framework for content.

Let’s presume we are working with a local MOT & servicing garage, (I’m using this example because it’s scalable, it’s the same for a 1 person business or a huge corporation in terms of user-centricity) a user story could be..

 ‘I’m a busy office worker who wants to book an MOT (WHO). I need to have my car picked up and dropped off at work (WHAT NEED), so I can have my car road legal and ready for the weekend (WHY).’

So, with this example in mind, having information about what tools you use for the MOT or what order you check things on the car isn’t necessary. The user doesn’t care about these things. They want to easily be able to see what services you offer like a pick up and drop off service and what location that covers, where to find you, and how to contact you. The longer they have to search or sift through other content to find what they need to extract from the site, the more likely they are to be dissatisfied with your site and even abandon all together. This then leaves them negative impressions of your brand and also will affect your bounce rates.

Remembering what we discussed further up about content relevancy as a ranking factor? That being said, it’s important to remember we are also optimising content for human beings, as well as search engines. To do this effectively you want to communicate with the user in the most human way in what they see and interact with, whether it’s a user interface or a page of content, or document.

4. Create User Personas

Create target audience user personas.

These are an extension of your user story and you can go into much more depth with them. Give them names and introduce these people to anyone who’s working on the project.

Nothing says “I know who our users are” more than data-driven example human beings that directly resemble your target audience. Let’s say you have a pet-sitting network website and app, and you’re presenting an idea to the board as you want to re-design content to improve user experience.

“This is Debbie. Debbie is 35, single, and loves her pet chocolate, Labrador Rufus. She needs to find an experienced and local female dog walker, so she can go to work with peace of mind knowing her dog is in excellent hands that she trusts to be in her home. She wants them to text her once a day through the app and send photos.” *insert picture/graphic

When you create empathy for your user, not only can you increase buy-in from stakeholders but also get those extra-special detail into the design and content which you probably wouldn’t achieve without that human awareness and connection. You can use tools like Xtensio and UserForge to help you create user personas and integrate them into your projects. Zapier have an excellent page about how to create and develop user personas if you need more information and convincing about why this is such a valuable process.

So now you know more about who your user is, you have stories and personas, you must decide on the best way to communicate with them.

5. Choose the Best Way to Communicate with Your Users

The key is to always use the language that your users use. To find out what this is, you must test your assumptions and collect data. When considering the language, words and phrases you are going to choose, you are likely to have a few crucial decisions to make. Of course, you need to consider SEO best practices and keyword volumes if you want to rank well, but also remember that you are designing the content to ultimately communicate with a human being. Therefore, you will need to let common sense choose where to draw the line for your specific project or business when picking between key terms and phrases.

For example, sometimes the data you collect can point to one keyword being the most highly searched term, but, if that keyword doesn’t sound right for your brand (*see the importance of Brand guidelines and Tone of Voice documents below) and isn’t a term you think your users will use naturally, you’ll need to make a judgement call. Remember, you are designing the content to improve user experience. If you choose a keyword which has a high volume but makes the action the user is trying to complete more confusing down to the language, you’ll risk making the experience a bad one. Which brings me onto your ever important best friend, data.

6. Data – Testing, Testing and More Testing!

You will need both Quantitative data and Qualitative data. You can’t argue with data like you can with personal opinions!

You ALWAYS have to test your assumptions about your users, as this will prove your concept for content production. It could be an expensive project for website design, so having data to prove your hypotheses to senior teams helps justify any spending. Testing kills assumptions or egos, whoever they belong to. Too often we hear “I know our users and I’ve met them it’s fine we don’t need to do user testing”, no, Steve the CEO. Test it.

There’s a well-known saying, “you’re usually always wrong about your users”, and it’s generally the truth in most cases. Save yourself money and precious resources on redesign or re-writing time in the long run.

I’ve worked with a business that created an app to work with their product but didn’t collect any data about their users first. They just purely worked on the aesthetics of the UI. It turns out that the app was so hard to use that it actually lost them a large amount of their customer base (which they spent a lot of money on marketing to attain and retain) and also increased their customer service centre costs by nearly 50%. All costs which could have been saved through proper testing. There was a study published in the US which found that “82% Of U.S. Consumers Bail On Brands After Bad Customer Service”, which is worth a read. Data from testing is an essential building block for any successful content production, and who doesn’t want successful content?

Test it especially if you work in digital marketing.

If the content isn’t successful from a traffic/conversion/revenue point of view, you can show you had data to prove it was created to meet the needs of your user. Save your ass from the blame game, no one needs that in their life or workplace. See my blog on Client and Agency relationships about how to avoid this in the first place.

7. You Need to Collect both Quantitative Data and Qualitative Data

  • Quantitative data – At SiteVisibility we use tools such as Google Analytics, Keyword Planner, SEMrush, STAT, Google Trends, AHrefs, Moz and Buzzsumo amongst others – it gives you hard numbers, and will tell you which terms are not only the highest searched, but also information on keyword seasonality. Quantitative data will typically cover a higher number of your user audience, into the thousands or maybe millions. It’s great for establishing favoured terms, e.g. ‘car rental or car hire’, helping you to make key decisions when deciding on the best language to use for your business.
  • Qualitative data – This covers user testing with a smaller group of people, and includes anything from face to face focus groups, phone or video interviews, surveys and other forms. It will mainly revolve around asking someone to complete a function on your website or app and observing how they use the product or interact with it. Or, for written documentation, getting the participants to use coloured pens on the printed content to decipher and outline what’s easy to understand, and what’s not. You can also use platforms or tools for this such as UserTesting.com, UserSnap, UsabilityHub and User Zoom.

Qualititave vs Quantitative data

8. The More Data and Proof you have of the Language and Behaviours of your User, the Better Your Content Will Be

A notable example of why testing is SO important, is something we were told on from the Scroll course which really stuck with me. When reviewing GDS content, the content designers found that there were 400 questions for someone to work out if they were eligible for Carers Allowance, but most of their traffic was received at between 1-2am, the only time people had free alongside caring and looking after themselves. That showed them they crucially needed to reduce the amount of questions to make user’s lives less stressful and the process not as hard to complete. Then, when they actually tested some of the new proposed questions in person with real people, some questions which were seemingly direct and clear were found very upsetting for someone currently caring.

So, had they not performed user experience research by testing content with real people, they would never have known it was traumatic process for those carers, let alone tiring.

The content format would have made it hard to digest and perform functions, so it would have also been really bad design from a UX perspective. Through content testing with real people you’ll bridge the gap between yourself and your customers and reap the rewards. Put yourself out there, connect with human beings and don’t act like a robot!

9. Create Tone of Voice Documents, Brand Guidelines, or Content Guides

So, you’ve established an outcome from the user testing and data analysis of which phrases to use and key terms to be included, and proven factual information about your users but what happens next with all that information?

Well, you are now tasked with the great importance of creating tone of voice documents, brand guidelines, or content guides. This should be a fun process, get your whole team involved as a working process for the best outcome.

Be creative, be relaxed, be sensible, or be cheeky! Whatever your unique brand voice and personality encompasses, in a way that best connects with your users.

My personal favourite examples are MailChimp, Uber, Asana, and The Guardian, which all have top notch content style and design guides that will inspire you and get you on the right track. Remember, every brand is different and you will likely need to keep evolving and iterating these documents to remain current and reactive to your target audience. Having these documents ready before work is undertaken ensures that everyone in your organisation and any agencies or freelancers you’re working with know how best to communicate with your users.

Also, if it’s applicable for your business, create design guidelines which outline how content production/copywriting interacts with any UX/UI design. This is so the content writers in your team can work well with UX/UI designers and make sure that you’re all communicating consistently and the resulting product functions well. Don’t use lorem ipsum for prototypes, use real content to show how the app or desktop page will appear to the user, it will improve the design layout in the end. Design content in harmony with interface design and you’ll likely have a much more aesthetically pleasing end product.

10. The Golden Fundamental Rules ALL Content Should Follow

When it comes to creating content, it’s so important to remember that there are millions of functionally illiterate people, dyslexic people, people with learning difficulties or eyesight conditions. There are also millions of people where English isn’t their first language.

That doesn’t mean that you have to dumb your content down, but put your content on an even playing field so everyone has an equal chance to understand it. Here are some tips for doing so:

    • Speak directly to the user, in plain English (or the equivalent in your language.)
    • Use the active voice (“You can download the document.”) rather than the passive voice (“The document can be downloaded.”).
    • Use short sentences, simple is effective. (It’s a skill to do this well.)
    • Don’t use jargon, acronyms, or internal language (Even on internal business systems or documentation as there might be new people who aren’t up to speed yet.)

Hemingway App is great to show you how complex or simple your sentences are to read. It also keeps any copywriting feedback between teams unbiased and impersonal. I’ve personally used it to qualify the copy on a client’s site that a senior team member wrote themselves, and thought was perfect.

“Sorry Sandra, Hemingway App came back saying that all the sentences were very difficult to read. We should factor this into our future content rewrites”.

(Much better than “Sanda please leave the writing to a copywriter, k thnx bye.”)

There will be content that maybe includes slightly more complex words due to the nature of the business, but there’s always a way to communicate complex things in a simple, clear way. Academic websites are usually the worst for this. Question if the person writing the content is projecting their own vocabulary onto the user of the content.

Similarly, avoid using complex metaphors or national/colloquial phrases that someone who doesn’t have English as a first language will not understand as a direct translation. I.e “It’s raining cats and dogs.” or “Few biscuits short of the tin” as a couple of British favourites. Question if the same message can be conveyed in less words, and in a more concise fashion, as it usually can.

Remember the saying, “How well we communicate is determined not by how well we say things, but how well we are understood.”

11. Always Have Your Content Proofed by Someone Else!

Make sure your content has been proofed by someone who isn’t you. Grammarly is a great tool for spell checking and grammar mistakes, but it’s not the same as having another human edit, make suggestions and develop your content. NO ONE, regardless of experience and skill, is beyond spelling mistakes and computers can miss things a human wouldn’t. You should always factor in to any content production time the iteration of the content.

12. Test Your Content to Make Sure it Satisfies the Original User Needs

Does it pass the acceptance criteria for your original user need? You must evaluate the content you have written against the original user need to find out if it’s passed the acceptance criteria.

Let’s return to our example from the start of this article. For example, let’s presume you work at the MOT garage in question, and had reworked the whole site to improve user experience and design. Let’s say you’ve created a new ‘MOT and Service Booking Information’ page and you want to measure its quality against the original user need.

Who – “I’m a busy office worker who wants to book an MOT on a weekday”
Have you specified clearly that it’s possible to book MOT’s on a weekday? YES/NO

What need – “I need to have my car picked up from and dropped off at my local work”

Have you stated clearly that you offer a pick up/drop off service within the location you operate in? YES/NO (*Top marks if you’ve got a functionality built in so that the user can clearly see on an interactive map or postcode drop down if their work falls in the free weekly pick up/drop off zone.

Why – “So I can have my car road legal and ready for the weekend, without being late for work.”

Have you specified the available days and times that you offer pick-ups/drop offs? Also, have you listed the cut off times so that the car is safely dropped off before the weekend. YES/NO

All Yes?  Hurrah, now publish it.

One or more No’s? Iterate it and retest it until you have a unified Yes on all criteria.

13. Don’t Let Your Website Become Wild and Untamed with Un-necessary or Old Content

Many businesses just keep dumping more content on their site without reviewing what they currently have. See if there’s a page that can currently service the same user need that you are creating new content for. Iterating your present content makes sure it’s always relevant and you can continue to retest it with users to confirm it satisfies a need. The main thing to establish is can your content can be iterated and save you precious time resources by not creating a whole new page? To do this effectively you can use pop-up features on tools like Hotjar to evaluate your user’s experience on the site, through asking questions such as “Has this answered your question?” or similar. Hotjar also has a bunch of other useful features like heat mapping, surveys and form analysis, which is why it’s a favourite tool here at SiteVisibility.

We worked with a Tech Communications business who had on average four or five pages where they could have had one per service they offered. Across about seven products that’s roughly around thirty pages where they could have had seven. Each page took time to write and maintain, therefore money and time that could be spent on improving other elements of their website. Also, from an SEO perspective it can be very detrimental to your overall site rankings to let this happen. Due to the cannibalisation of your traffic from duplicate keywords being used on similar pages. And now with Google impressing the importance of content relevancy by making it a ranking factor, when they crawl your site this will likely go unnoticed and further traffic penalties may occur.

14. Don’t Forget About it! Retest Content Later Down the Line to Make Sure it’s Still Servicing Your User Need

Keep testing and improving your content to satisfy your user need. Iterate, iterate and iterate some more. Your users may change and morph as your business grows, and continued testing and research about your users will ensure you’re educated along the journey.

We’ve all updated a new version of an app or experienced how much better it is when a popular website suddenly makes a big change and it’s so much easier to use. This continued user satisfaction will continue to prolong any priceless brand advocacy and will ensure your users keep singing your praises and wanting to use your service. Long gone are the days where people had to physically travel to another town to visit a different shop or business, it’s only too easy for people to jump ship onto another tab to your competitors in the same minute and ditch you entirely. It’s a tough market out there and if your main competitors are continuing to iterate and improve their digital content they will beat you, maybe not short term but longer term.

It isn’t enough for businesses to presume because they have always had the lion’s share of the market it will always continue. These days people have so much more access and awareness to other new, upcoming brands. So, unless you remain current and user-centric you risk losing that competitive edge. Andy Budd from Clearleft illustrates this point expertly in his talk ‘Using Design for Competitive Advantage”.

Good Content Design is an ever evolving, continuing process exactly like industrial and product design. People change, therefore the words to communicate with them must change. If you’re working to remain user-centric, the chances are your content will also be relevant too. Therefore, not only will you be found better in search, but you’ll also be delighting and retaining your users. It’s a winning combination.

So, here’s a summary of everything we have discussed to ensure you create User-Centric content:

  1. Start with your users and what you know about them.
  2. There’s a difference between a user need, and an organisations need
  3. To understand more about your users, start with creating user stories
  4. Create user personas.
  5. Choose which is the best way to communicate with your users.
  6. Data – Testing, testing and more testing!
  7. You need to collect both Quantitative data and Qualitative data.
  8. The more data and proof you have of the language and behaviours of your user, the better your content will be.
  9. Create Tone of Voice documents, brand guidelines, or content guides.
  10. The golden fundamental rules ALL content should follow.
  11. Always have your content proofed by someone else!
  12. Test your content to make sure it satisfies the original user need.
  13. Don’t let your website become wild and untamed with un-necessary or old content.
  14. Don’t forget about it! Retest content later down the line to make sure it’s still servicing your user need.

So, what do you think? Is there anything I’ve missed? I’d love to know your thoughts. Feel free to leave your comments below or to email me at tess.underhill@sitevisibility.com.

If you’d like to find out more about how we can help you with your content marketing, give us a call on 01273733433 or contact us using the form below:

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