What’s in Your Content Strategy Toolkit?

Book Review:
The Content Strategy Toolkit:
Methods, Guidelines, and Templates for Getting Content Right

By Meghan Casey

New Riders; Peachpit Press, 235 pages

Content Strategy Toolkit Book CoverIt’s a good season for content strategy tools. A coalition of content strategists including Noreen Compton, Paula Land, and Kevin P. Nichols just published The Content Strategy Alliance Tools and Templates: A Best Practices Handbook. With a practical focus on guidelines and documentation, the handbook presents more than 40 tools for content strategy projects, and I’ll review it in a future post.

Earlier this summer, the content strategy tools season began with Meghan Casey’s Content Strategy Toolkit: Methods, Guidelines, and Templates for Getting Content Right. Casey is a lead content strategist at Brain Traffic, Kristina Halvorson’s content strategy consulting firm. It comes as no surprise that Casey approaches content strategy from a consultant’s viewpoint, but content strategists embedded in enterprises will also find plenty of valuable insights and useful tools in this essential content strategy resource.

What might be surprising about this book is how long it takes to get to the nitty-gritty content strategy stuff. I passed the book to a colleague, and, glancing at the table of contents, she said, “She doesn’t even get to content strategy until chapter eight.” That’s when Casey presents information about the inventories and mapping that many people think of as content strategy. Of course those tasks are critical, but Casey is smart enough to know that a number of other steps need to happen before that work can be effective or even happen at all.

That’s why Casey begins her book with two chapters about getting the money and organizational agreement to begin the content strategy project in the first place. Even within a big company, the content project sometimes begins as just a notion about how to make some content improvements. Casey provides guidance into how we can guess at what can be improved, quickly test our hypothesis with an audit and/or user testing, and then document the areas for improvement, which we are advised to call opportunities, not problems.

But solving those problems, er, opportunities, takes resources. How do we talk to the money people to get budget and buy-in? Many content strategists may not have the business-budget background, so Casey spells out a straightforward way of turning a discussion of opportunities into budget. Yes, math; she goes there. But in just a few pages, she shows how even the most number-phobic content person can document business risks and compare them to rewards. These are the kind of numbers and discussions that can get content strategy efforts funded.

Even before the content strategist can dig in to deliver on the promise of rewards, additional organizational communication and negotiation needs to happen. Casey explains that we need to identify stakeholders, especially the ones who can derail a project. We then need to get them all involved and communicate with them throughout the project.

Sounds like project management, doesn’t it? If you’re in a larger organization with a department of skilled project managers, then some of these steps might be their job. If not, Casey explains, then you need to play an active role in running the project and communicating about it.

Other steps Casey describes are sometimes product management or research tasks. This emphasizes how collaborative content strategy needs to be.

Regardless of who does the work, Casey offers guidelines for how it can be done. The tools you can download with the book are a sound start for accomplishing necessary content tasks and moving the project along.

One of the highlights of the book for me was the chapter on content design, which Casey defines in a section entitled “What I Mean by Content Design”:

The names, deliverables, and artifacts for this phase in digital projects vary. I’m sure you’ve heard terms such as information architecture (IA), sitemap, wireframe, template, content type, content model, structured content, page outline, component library, and so on. I like to wrap all these items and more into the umbrella term content design.

This is a term that is gaining prominence in the user experience design community, and some content strategy professionals have even renamed themselves content designers. The terms Casey lists in that paragraph are certainly becoming expected of more content strategists.

Casey breaks content design into four areas:

  • Prioritization: Determining what content is most important for users (and for the business too)
  • Organization: Developing a sitemap and taxonomy so users can find the content they want
  • Presentation: Using a core model and content modeling to detail how content will be presented
  • Specifications: Detailing what content appears on each page or screen
Sample Content Strategy Toolkit Template
A content prioritization template from The Content Strategy Toolkit.

Many of the content strategists I know are deeply involved in these steps. I know I am. It was helpful to hear some of our thoughts reflected and refined in this chapter, and I’m looking forward to putting the tools Casey presents here to work.

Other content folks will probably have other favorite chapters and tools, depending on their interests and the needs of the projects they’re working on. I’m sure that’s why many content strategists will be keeping this book near their desk, for guidance about how to get content done at almost any stage of a content strategy project – from initial budget to product launch and into the governance that happens after.

This book might not be a definitive toolkit. There will always be some projects that have unique problems (opportunities?) that require a unique approach or deliverable. Casey herself admits that the spreadsheets and presentations and Word docs she offers will often have to be tailored to your clients and companies. But Casey does present thoughtful, business-tested methods, tips, and templates that are a great foundation for any content strategist – knowledge we all should have in our toolkit.

Using Strategy to Create Successful Digital Products

Book Review:
UX Strategy: How to Devise Innovative Digital Products That People Want

By Jaime Levy

O’Reilly Media, 312 pages

UX-Strategy-How-To-Devise-Products-People-WantIn the preface to UX Strategy: How to Devise Innovative Digital Products That People Want, Jaime Levy suggests who should read her book: entrepreneurs, product managers, and designers. But other members of creative product teams, such as marketers, content strategists, and copywriters, will get valuable insights from this book. When an urgent “copy-to-the-rescue” project comes across a writer’s desk (or “visual-design-to-the-rescue” for designers), such a project is often a frantic attempt to fix major flaws in the product and the UX strategy work that may or may not have been done. This book helps outline what that strategy work should be.

Levy has been practicing UX strategy since 2007, about a year before the term first appeared in print. Today she runs her own agency in Los Angeles and teaches at University of Southern California, and she has funneled much of her teaching skills into this book. She presents a step-by-step approach to coming up with, testing, and designing a successful digital product – that is, a product that consumers want. And, as she describes with examples such as Airbnb, Waze, and Uber, if consumers want the product, then some worthwhile disruption is probably occurring and some money is being made.

Well before that happy day occurs, however, UX strategy needs to happen.

Interestingly, the term UX strategy arose at about the same time as content strategy. Discussion continues about whether the terms are precise or appropriate for either practice. Levy herself engages the debate by asking UX strategists such as Holly North and Peter Merholz, “What does UX strategy mean to you? Is it a bogus job title?”

It’s evident that UX strategy is not bogus for Levy. “UX strategy is the process that should be started first,” Levy writes, “before the design or development of a digital product begins. It’s the vision of a solution that needs to be validated with real potential customers to prove that it’s desired in the marketplace. Although UX design encompasses numerous details such as visual design, content messaging, and how easy it is for a user to accomplish a task, UX strategy is the ‘Big Picture.’”

To arrive at that Big-Picture vision, Levy explains, entrepreneurial product teams can focus on four tenets of UX strategy.

  • Business Strategy – what the company is; “why the company exists”
  • Value Innovation – when the company aligns something new at the right price point and with the right utility
  • Validated User Research – making sure that the customers you’re targeting see the value and can use your product
  • Killer UX Design – innovative design that reaches beyond established patterns

The list above admittedly oversimplifies these terms. To get a more complete understanding of how these tenets inform each other and the shape of digital products, read Levy’s book. Her description of these tenets is one of the book’s highlights. Her insights and examples throughout these pages are engaging, sometimes surprising, and stimulating for anyone with an entrepreneurial spirit.

Levy’s own intelligence and spirit come through when she’s explaining her UX strategy framework, and part of that spirit is her sense of humor. To help clarify what UX strategy should be, she publishes her own top 10 list of things that are not UX strategies. My two favorite things that are not UX strategies:

  1. A creative permutation of trending buzzwords that were just used by another startup that raised financing (for instance, peer to-peer sharing economies).
  1. A laundry list of features!

Levy also puts her humor to incisive use when encouraging teams to replace the customer journey map with an ecommerce funnel matrix. The funnel matrix she proposes is faster to create and tracks more closely to the product’s performance once it’s been released. Journey maps have a tendency of being ignored after they’re created, or worse: “The posters are then hung or stored somewhere in the office to hopefully influence employees on their way to the bathroom.”

Levy’s humor is based on insight and behavior that she and many others in the design community have witnessed. Who hasn’t been in a situation where certain design tools and approaches are overused, despite their ineffectiveness? Brainstorming sessions, anyone? North Star? Oh yes, Levy mentions that in her top 10 list.

Levy has a considerable store of UX strategy experience, and she freely shares many of her own work examples. Even when the outcomes are not exactly positive, such as her confirming for a Hollywood executive that his ecommerce idea will not work, we get to see the process of considering new ideas, testing them, and possibly turning them into worthwhile products. Levy has refined her process into a UX Strategy Toolkit, which she makes available with the book. Entrepreneurial teams can use Levy’s templates to research, test, build, and refine their own products.

Perhaps giving out the UX Strategy Toolkit is not, after all, a great favor. To really use this resource and take full advantage of the framework, a product team will have to undertake an exceptional amount of work, collaborate intensely, and be prepared to iterate and pivot quickly.

UX strategy is difficult, unpredictable work. Levy’s framework tries to provide the path to happy innovation and disruption, but there are still hundreds of steps to take along the way. “As a UX strategist,” Levy writes, “I am paid to help my clients face dilemmas and chase dreams.” With this book, Levy shares her experience and her process for how the chase can end in success.

UX Strategy Launch Party
On July 17 at 6 p.m. at Cross Campus in Santa Monica, Jaime Levy will be on hand for a launch party for UX Strategy: How to Devise Innovative Digital Products That People Want. Levy will be answering questions and signing copies of her book. More information is available on Eventbrite.