The Value of Testing Content
Similar to testing UX designs, testing content at important points throughout a project lets you get feedback from people and ensure your content works. If your content isn’t working, you can adjust the content and test again until it does. By testing throughout your project, you save yourself the pain, frustration, and cost of reaching the end of a project only to find the content does not work for people.
For content, usability is whether someone can find, read, and understand the content. To accomplish our business goals, we often need content to be more than findable, readable, and understandable. Content might need to engage, influence, or support decisions.
Balancing What with Why
Perhaps the greatest value of testing content is that it lets you gather more qualitative data to complement your quantitative data such as analytics. It is difficult, if not impossible, to measure the effectiveness of content using quantitative data alone.  If you test content throughout a project, you assimilate a more complete understanding of whether it’s achieving your goals. While analytics can tell you plenty about what is happening with your content, qualitative testing helps you understand why it is happening. For example, analytics can tell you that a certain page has a high bounce rate. Interviews with people can tell you that the content doesn’t cover the topics they need or the content’s tone is lifeless or the images look unprofessional—and give you insights that can help you fix the problems.
Testing content with people throughout a project lets you triangulate qualitative feedback with expert review and quantitative data—from analytics, call metrics, or multivariate testing. Where you see similarities, patterns, or connections between all three, you’ll find the strongest insights. Triangulation is a widely recognized research principle in the social sciences, where strict, empirical tests that follow the scientific method—complete with a control group, variable group, and statistically significant results—are often not possible. Instead of trying to answer a question through one scientific experiment, triangulation answers the question through the combined results of several methods. Figure 1 shows how triangulation can apply to content.
What Is a Content Concept?
A content concept is a mockup or draft of your content. I find testing at three different levels of fidelity useful, depending on what qualities of the content I want to test. The higher the fidelity, the more variables you can test. However, it can be harder to identify which variable is causing your results. (See “How Do I Test a Content Concept” later in this column.)
|Fidelity of Content Concept||Most Helpful for Testing These Qualities…|
Content independent of the design and, possibly, formatting
|Content in a low-fidelity design
Content in rough wireframes or prototypes, including basic formatting
|Content in a high-fidelity design
Content in polished wireframes or prototypes, including polished page formatting
What Content Should I Test?
You probably can’t test every single piece of content that might be a part of your project, so you’ll need to test a sample. I find the best approaches to sampling content are critical case sampling and common case sampling.
Critical Case Sampling
Select the instances of content that are most important to your project goals. For instance, if your project involves convincing people to sign up for something, you should test the content for the sign-up module or landing page.
Common Case Sampling
Choose the types of content that comprise the majority of the content for your Web site or interactive user experience. For example, if the goal of your Web site is to provide credible healthcare information to improve people’s healthcare decisions, test the content for a typical healthcare topic.
When Should I Test Content Concepts?
Test content concepts at the beginning of your project. Rachel Lovinger, Content Strategy Lead at Razorfish, offers a helpful visual showing the evolution of content strategy throughout the project process in Figure 2.  Concept is part of the early discovery phase.
I find testing a concept works best once you have a clear understanding of your project goals and have gained enough insights from other data sources—such as analytics, call metrics, best practices, content analysis, market research, or competitive analysis—to form a reasonable concept.