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Using content principles to keep your charity website fresh

25 August 2020

Content is a key component of user experience and yet we often neglect to appreciate its importance.

Many of the websites we create give people access to large amounts of content. From health information to fundraising advice, content is often the true source of value at the heart of the user experiences we design. But after time, websites can suffer from ‘untidy desk’ syndrome. The website starts to be treated as a place to keep everything the organisation produces without much thought. Like an untidy desk, individuals may remember where they put things but anyone coming to the desk for the first time will struggle to know where to start. In fact, the task of finding what they were looking for is so off-putting they simply walk away. As the website bloats, stakeholders lose trust that it is a valuable business asset and people start to believe the only way to ‘fix’ this problem is through another expensive redevelopment.  So how do we stop this deterioration?

It’s tempting to tighten editorial permissions, centralise your content production processes and chastise anyone who steps outside your organisation’s writing style guide (generally in the form of a number of passive aggressive emails). But this approach is doomed. By taking away any sense of collaboration, you’ll soon find your organisation no longer believes that your digital platform is an effective tool to deliver its goals. Instead we must take the opposite approach.

A part of any good content strategy will be a plan to grow a positive, user-centred culture within your organisation. This means developing and sharing skills, tools and values that current and future employees will understand and adopt. Your content strategy should also outline how your organisation intends to achieve an appropriate content governance and workflow model. But effective content strategy can be expensive and daunting for smaller organisations and slow to implement for larger ones.

That’s why developing a set of Content Principles is useful as they can quickly get your content production and management under control and help you focus on what’s important. These principles can provide a set of common beliefs that can become a powerful tool in evangelizing your organisation’s approach to content production.

After years of working with charity clients here are a few ideas about what works well and where things go wrong and some suggested principles that could work for you:

Our content is created in response to a user need

Your website/platform exists to serve organisational touch-points that help to solve people’s problems, achieve their goals or receive the support they need. Your website content is one tool of many that allows people to achieve these goals. You’re creating a service for people, not a place for you to file every last written word your organisation has produced.

New content added to the website should in some way map to a genuine (and ideally researched) user need.

Our content is part of a journey

It’s not unusual for content to be produced in a vacuum but it’s rarely the case that it’s consumed in one. When we create content it’s important that we understand where it sits within the broader experiences our audiences may have.

Our content is usable

When we think about the quality of user interface design we make judgements based on usability. This same judgement is rarely applied to content. But just what the hell is usable content?

Each of us have a limited ability to process incoming information to our brain. Too much content results in extraneous cognitive load resulting in users having a harder time understanding and absorbing information and therefore being less likely to achieve their goals. So usable content is:

1. Concise
2. Chunks content to help users remember it
3. Increases scanability by using subheadings, lists and short paragraphs

This is especially important for charities working with people that may have reduced ability to deal with cognitive load such as those dealing with emotional distress. For a great example of content design for this audience check out Matt Haig’s book Reasons to Stay Alive.

Our content is easy and logical to find through navigation or search

Create and organise content in the manner users expect to find it. When we organise our content, we aim to map it to our users’ expectations (their mental model). This could mean matching the terminology we know people use to look for things. Your sites search logs are a gold mine of information.

It also includes avoiding pitfalls such as replicating internal structures, using jargon or ambiguous proper nouns.

Making content easy to find is also often about managing choices. We all have a limited capacity to weigh options. Less is more. Additionally, when a user has to make a choice the options should be hierarchical equivalents for example “cricket, football, tennis” rather than “sports, tennis, David Beckham”. Give users the choices they are expecting, rather than the options we might want them to have.

Our content is regularly optimised to ensure it’s performing well against clear goals

Good content is iterative. We’re often obsessed with producing new content and don’t give that much thought to how well existing content is serving the needs of our users. Important content should be tested to ensure it is delivering what people want. The simplest way to do this is to ask people what they think, either through user testing or any number of online feedback tools.

Once you’ve got this right you can start to think about using a platform such as Google Analytics to measure your content’s impact on goal conversion rate. This is an important step in measuring performance of your site but avoid using meaningless vanity metrics.

Our content is inclusive

Inclusivity is often reduced to appropriate alt text for images and colour contrast. These are important factors of accessible content and your content creators definitely need to understand the practical elements of accessible content but inclusive content is so much more than this. It starts with a recognition of the biases we hold when we’re producing content.

Inclusive content is about creating opportunities to gather feedback from a diverse range of communities. It means identifying how and why the content you’re producing could be excluding people from engaging with your organisation. It means creating different, more inclusive ways to engage with your organisation without compromise to experience.

Tom Saunders

product director, Torchbox

Tom Saunders is a product director at Torchbox, a digital agency working with charities to build digital products that make the world a better place. With a background in design and user experience, Tom worked at a number of UK charities before heading to Torchbox where he has worked with clients ranging from Samaritans to Oxfam.