Everything in Moderation: Using Content Units to Manage UX

By Keith LaFerriere

Published: May 19, 2008

The Roman philosopher Cicero stated, “Never go to excess, but let moderation be your guide.” The trouble is, even though people have repeated this particular quotation over the past couple of millennia, our clients often push the limits excessively—beyond moderation—for both content and presentation.

As a UX professional, how do you demonstrate to your clients the benefits of moderation in user experience? You show them.

Stop Right There

“Separating client requests into content units removes uncertainty and offers clearer direction, while helping your client recognize each individual request as a deliverable, requiring assignments and responsibilities.”

You’re sitting in a meeting with a client and the first thing they say to you is: “We’d like the site to have some sort of movement on it. It has to be interactive, and it needs to include some Ajax, or whatever that’s called, and make sure people can see everything without scrolling….”

Rather than running from the room screaming, because your client has given you a hodgepodge of unworkable requirements, take a deep breath and respond to each and every one of the things your client has asked you to do. You could approach doing this in a couple of different ways, but I’ve found that separating client requests into content units removes uncertainty and offers clearer direction, while helping your client recognize each individual request as a deliverable, requiring assignments and responsibilities.

To do this, I follow a four-step process that helps delineate what content units each section of a Web site must cover—as opposed to content that acts as filler, or filler units. Before I outline this process, I’ll define these two main content types.

Content Units

Content units are any type of content that

  • is sectional in nature
  • is updated with some degree of frequency
  • has a direct impact on the structure of a navigation tree or site map

Examples of content units might include client case studies, products or services, core offerings, and any application-related content such as Help files, a wiki, or a glossary.

Filler Units

Filler units are content that

  • does not have a definite destination
  • does not impact a Web site’s overall structure or linking strategy
  • has a short life span
  • you could remove without changing the integrity of a site’s navigation

Examples of filler units might include a video you intend for a single viewing, a news article, a signup form, a short-term promotion, or a contest.

Step 1: List and Gather Your Content Units

“Content can drive the creation of a user experience in more ways than just affecting its layout and look.”

Content can drive the creation of a user experience in more ways than just affecting its layout and look. Divide content units into more finely grained classifications. You can list the content units in a spreadsheet, then have your client add their classifications to the spreadsheet, and finally, decide who will produce them.

It’s very important to note that this exercise does not replace the creation of a site map or navigation tree. But assigning responsibilities with deadlines for the creation and collection of content units helps you to manage a deliverable—in this case, a Web site.

For creative managers or Web producers, getting a client to deliver information in a well thought out manner can be a daunting task. Clients often have no idea where to begin, even if they were the ones who originally wrote and produced their initial Web site.

By working out a set of deliverables and giving your client some of the responsibility for producing them, you can get better results.

Step 2: Assignments and Delivery

“You should make assignments in conjunction with your client.”

Not every project requires a deep level of documentation surrounding its associated content. In some cases, our responsibility is the editing and approval of content rather than its actual production.

One method I’ve used in getting quicker results is to introduce myself to the people in the client’s approval chain—making sure they recognize that the project is happening and we need their help.

You should make assignments in conjunction with your client. It’s obvious that, if you dictate to them, you’ll most likely be ignored. Typically, just a few people generate the information and create the content for a Web initiative. Not only is it their job to write, edit, and produce the content, they must get it approved and work out how to fit it into the context. Help these people by working out a reasonable assignment schedule, and make sure they have attainable goals that fit within the timeline of the project. If they need to push something to a later phase, let the client prioritize things for you.

Step 3: Mind the Gaps

“Some of the most important content units are those that present error messaging and form results.”

We might concentrate on content such as news articles or pages detailing information about a company, but some of the most important content units are those that present error messaging and form results. So many factors dictate a user experience, and oftentimes, we overlook some of these minor, but extremely important pieces of content.

We now have much more control over error messages in forms and should work their editing and branding into our overall content plan.

Step 4: Review and Schedule

The review for your content units should include quality assurance, approval, editing, and, of course, launch.

If you’re responsible for managing a large-scale Web application, there are times throughout the development lifecycle when you’ll be asked to deliver specific content in order for the team to appropriately test and build. In such cases, we include the delivery schedule in Step 2 to ensure that all project team members understand when and where the team will require content.

Managing the User Experience Through Content Units

“Too much content can impair a user’s ability to both digest information and associate it with an entity, regardless of the type of content.”

We’re all aware that too much content can impair a user’s ability to both digest information and associate it with an entity, regardless of the type of content. But how about managing future designs and taking things into consideration before they become issues? Wireframes aside—they deal with the now—we should manage content as units, enabling us to present user experiences that can truly scale.

Considering that a user experience has a shelf life, we should take note of the various types of information and functionality we’ll need, then make decisions that we can apply to future versions of a Web site or application. For example, a sign-in box is always an essential functional area. By decomposing your Web sites or applications into content units, you can create content unity.

5 Comments

Fresh perspective on taking basic, principal ideas to the client. I like where it’s headed; possibly next time provide more ways to categorize content and how it maps to application design.

Thanks for the article.

Hi, Craig:

Thank you for the kind words. I’ve been working on a series of posts that are short and intended for my blog that may culminate in a larger thought piece surrounding content mapping and how to filter information back and forth from a large data source / repository. Not so much for CMS, but more for applications such as a financial or customer service application one would use every day at the workplace.

Nicely done. I haven’t seen your name around this blog, so I am assuming it’s a new entry. Thank you for the beginning of a good discussion. Please provide a follow-up piece that speaks to the application-level ideas you have. Some of us out here are content providers and designers who have little experience manipulating content for larger applications.—P.

I like the concept. I agree with Craig Luther who wrote “provide more ways to categorize content and how it maps to application design.” Any way that I can facilitate the planning process and provide meaningful feedback to the client is appreciated. Thank you.

Hi, Barbara

Thanks for bringing up the planning process in your comment. The biggest issue Web site owners have—regardless of the size of their site or application—is planning content. From error text to help or user assistance information, a client is rarely prepared to handle the job of restructuring.

In order to correctly plan with the client, we work together on a full content plan that not only maps out what has to get done, but who will own it and when they’ll need to create, approve, and deliver.

For application development projects, it’s truly the same. We all need to plan for every piece of content—all the way back in the discovery phase—so the project team realizes how much needs to get done and how important it is.

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