Why your content wants to be bad

No one wants to create a bad record, video game or film. But they exist. I’ve seen good people make bad content. I’ve done it too. No one really wants to do it, but sometimes, deep down, content wants to be bad.

1. You’re competing with old ideas

Anyone who has been to school or worked in an office has spent years writing or reading articles, essays and books. At work they work on files in folders on shared drives, even if it’s in the cloud.

Static web pages on the early web reflected these metaphors – they were self-contained bits of content. ‘Hyperlinks’ were great, but they were links between documents.

It’s easier to make content that’s self-contained. You can just crack on and do it yourself – no need to bother anyone else. Sadly, creating content that’s not aware of the other content around it creates clutter. And clutter can break search and navigation.

“Awesome charity grants” typed into a search box. Search suggestions are: FAQ, application form, application criteria, application overview, application criteria, assessor portal.
Hoping every time that the next portal, will be the portal back home

It doesn’t take many pages to break a basic website. Complex sites are easier to break because you’re managing hidden content and different contexts, as well as conventional pages.

Bots can only be as good as the content we give them. You’ll have to maintain the logic they use to make decisions, as well as the content they use for answers.

Trying to solve your problems with a single piece of self-contained content is the sort of thing that leads to FAQs. Sarah Richards doesn’t like FAQs. Go on one of her great courses to find out why.

Adult slumped and hiding their face
Sarah Richards has read your FAQ. Don’t worry – you could do something better next time.

Helping people outside of core digital teams to think differently about content takes time. It means helping them to learn to leave these metaphors behind, and to start thinking of websites as applications that solve problems for users.

Showing important people that something’s not working for users is more powerful than telling them. Map out some user journeys, and record people trying to complete them. Play this back to people who make decisions. You can use PowerPoint to record users, even on the most locked down corporate laptop.

2. Connecting content is difficult

Links are great. They can be in your navigation, created by tags or they can be right there in the body of your content. Adding the right links to content can help users to get things done and find other things they want. As you produce more content, connecting things in the right way becomes more difficult.

Most of this is because people and institutions find it difficult to remember things and adding useful links means being aware of content that has been published before.

There are ways of connecting content using things like tags. These can help, but content creators still have to be able to use them properly. ‘Properly’ may or may not mean how they were originally designed.

Maybe you’ve got enough money and content that AI can sort this out for you. Probably not though. This means that your tags, categories and navigation will need to be tended in between major redesigns.

3. Content is easier to create than it is to maintain

Praising new content is easy:

Mary has launched a new PDF toolkit hub for charities raising private finance. Fire up the Twitters! High fives and champagne all round!

Praising people who maintain content is harder. It means understanding that most content starts losing value the moment it’s published. You’ll also need to use metrics to understand what content you should be improving next. It can be done though:

Mary has done a quick dive into user needs in our analytics and social media, and has talked to a couple of users on the phone. She added what we were missing, removed what was dated and put links in all the right places. Mary is a content hero!

We don’t like to think about things losing value after we pay for them. But getting the most from your content probably means persuading people to think of your organisation’s content less as a treasure trove, and more like a fleet of 2009 Ford Mondeos. Or puppies. Or some hideous mixture of the two.

Car with the head of a puppy
KILL ME, PLEASE

4. Site redesigns are shiny distractions

Redesigns are important, but even good ones only buy you limited time. And, the more attention organisations focus on major redesigns, the less energy they have to make their content great.

I bloody love site redesigns. The opportunity for heroics. The promise of a better future. The budget.

The script for a redesign normally runs something like this:

Our navigation? A joke! Our pages? Filled with crusty old content! What’s that? How did it get like that? Never you mind! Onward with the redesign, to sunlit uplands! We shall be born anew!

Redesigns distract you from looking at how your content gets made and what goes into it. That’s people and culture. It’s a hundred conversations, a pile of shared understanding and working relationships.

Redesigns normally look at things like the way you label and structure your navigation. If you’ve got anyone with ‘UX’ in their job title then hopefully you’ve also got some insights into user needs that you can use to decide what type of content to make.

UX ‘deliverables’ don’t change cultures on their own. Left to themselves they fester in shared drives. This is even more likely if you’ve hired someone to do the UX for you.

Person taking photo of a delicious brunch on their phone
Your culture will eat your site structure quicker than you can Instagram your brunch

Substance and structure can’t spontaneously generate a good working culture. It’s a lot easier for an organisation that’s used to using data and working in an open way to create and maintain good substance and structure. Or, in other words, it doesn’t matter how good your website redesign is. If you’re lucky, your fabulous new site and content will just degrade quickly as it gets new content appended to it.

5. We’re thinking about silos, not gangs

We all need to bust silos. To not work in silos. We all agree about that. It makes sense. Except, that it doesn’t. A silo is a big container that shuts you off from things. No one works in one of those unless they work on a farm. People do like to work in gangs though. Being in a gang, feeling supported by a peer group using a shared language, feels awesome.

A gang of young men standing on the beach wearing sleeveless leather jackets. All of them lack facial hair. One of them raises a leather thong threateningly.
Check out my peer group and our personas. Jona is a time-pressured twenty-something who really wants to be delighted by any app he uses.

Gangs can be good. Gangs train people up and get stuff done. But, they can also be exclusionary and toxic.

You also need content clans, tribes, guilds (whatever) that bring people in different gangs together. Not collaborating means that content is more likely to reflect the interests of the gangs that made it, not the people reading it. Which is bad.

We can manage toxic behaviours and understand that it’s important to feel like you belong and that people understand you. We need gangs and cross-gang groups because they do different things. A content designer won’t have the same focus as a someone in marketing. This is fine. But, if the organisation that they work for is going to create (and maintain) a style guide that works across different contexts, you need a collaborative group that’s gang-inclusive.

‘Busting’ gangs will get you nowhere, and very fast. Even if you manage it, new ones will quickly take their place.

Thank you

Thanks to the wonderful @greglmy for giving great feedback and editing this post.

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