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The User We’ve Left Out: The Content Governor

by Jared M. Spool
on August 22, 2012

One of the biggest sins an experience designer can commit is to leave an important
user out from the design process. If we don’t even recognize the needs of the user, we
can’t design great solutions for them. It’s even worse when that user is
critical to making the design effective for everyone.

Yet teams we’ve worked with do this all the time. Hell, we’re even guilty of
doing this for our own work. To make matters worse, it’s the same user in every
case: The content governor.

Governance Doesn’t Just Happen

One of the most important ideas that content strategy has brought to the design table is
the idea of governance. Before we started thinking about content strategy, we never
considered governance’s importance.

The non-content parts of a design live until they are obsolete, which, most of the time,
is some point in the future we can’t really predict. When we’re creating
design elements, we’re not thinking about their entire lifecycle. Usually,
we’re only focused on getting things up and running. Sometimes we’re thinking
about how we’ll maintain it, but not often. And what will replace it? Not at all on
our radar.

Good content changes all this. Let’s consider an important collection of content for
a university web site: the financial aid pages. Here we have content we know, from the
project’s start, will need updating and will eventually be replaced. We’ll need to
update the application deadlines each year. New policies will force major changes.

Someone needs to be on top of all this, to be in charge of ensuring that the page always
brings the best value it can. That person is the content governor. The governor is
the one who oversees content during its lifespan. They are an important user of our

It was Karen McGrane who put this idea into our heads — that we need to treat our
site’s content governors as a user, not just as someone who works in a parallel
department. If we don’t nail their experience just right, the content on our site
will not meet the needs of our other users.

Content Is Not a Meme

Think of your favorite joke. Do you know who created it? Do you know who is in charge of
updating it?

knock-knock joke is a meme. That joke is passed from person to person without control or
ownership. If it changes, it’s because of mutations in the communication process,
not because of any intentional effort to keep it up to date.

Unlike the joke, well-designed content isn’t a meme. It needs an owner at every
point in its lifecycle. It needs someone to look at it and intentionally decide whether it
needs updating or replacement. That person may not be the same person who had created it,
but there’s always someone who owns that content.

When we let our financial aid page reflect last year’s deadlines with no hints of
what you’re supposed to do this year, we hurt our site’s user experience. This
creates frustration with the college applicants who end up calling the admissions office.
It’s likely frustrating for whoever answers the phone to give the correct deadline
dates or has to deal with people who have missed them.

The content governor holds a lot of responsibility. They can eliminate all that
frustration by ensuring the page is up to date.

We need to give the content governors the tools that help them do their job well. These
tools must meet their needs. If we don’t design for the content governors, like we
design for other users, how will we save our other users from the inevitable frustration?

Does the Template Help the Content?

The bane of any content governor’s existence is the page template. Templates help us
because they expedite our design process. If we can identify patterns in the way the
content wants to be displayed, we can make it easy on everyone for creating and
maintaining the page.

With a great template, we separate the content from its presentation. We can change the
position, weight, and other visual elements without having to change the content

Well, that’s the theory. The problem is we don’t always do a good job of
matching the template to the content.

Take our financial aid page. There’s a lot of different parts here. There’s a
schedule of deadlines. There’s a list of available aid programs (with links to other
pages that describe each in more depth). There’s a description of the application
procedures. There’s probably overview text and basic definitions for people who are
new to what aid is.

Chances are the financial aid page is unique in its content. A template used for some
other page isn’t likely to work well here. And a template created for this page
probably won’t find usage somewhere else.

This means we need to make a design decision: do we force a generic template on to the
content of this page or do we create a custom, one-use template? This isn’t an easy
question to answer. One-use templates dramatically increase the cost and time it takes to
build out the site. Generic templates reduce the value by making it harder for the content
governor to get the best experience out of the content.

The design team needs to work with every content governor to prioritize which content
deserves this special attention and which can use an existing template. A page, like that containing
financial aid information, could be mission critical enough that it warrants its own
design effort.

Carefully-Designed Meta Data

To design for multiple devices, we now are designing different content configurations.
What fits on a large desktop screen with fast bandwidth might want to be something more
manageable when the screen is tiny or the bandwidth is slow.

This means we’re now creating and storing our content in chunks that we’ll
dynamically display on the device. To make this work, we assign each chunk a semantic
role, like deadline date or application procedure. We can reorganize and filter the
content according to the roles we see fit.

find myself coming back to this great quote from Ethan Resnick: "Metadata is the
new art direction."
If we’re using metadata to tell us how to use each
chunk in our design, this adds a new level of sophistication to how we render our pages.

Choreographing the relationship between content, metadata, and its presentation is a new
design challenge. Creating tools that help us manage these, especially for less technical
content governors, opens a world of fun possibilities.

CMS Design: The Last Frontier

The Content Management System is the traditional front end for content creation and
management. Content creators and governors work with it every day.

However, the interfaces to these tools are notoriously bad, leading to content being
entered incorrectly. We then get a garbage-in-garbage-out result, bringing us more
frustration all the way through the system.

If we try to pick out the most frustrating parts of all of our users’ experiences,
including those of the content governor, we’re likely to find our CMS at the top of
the list. As responsible designers, we need to take the CMS design seriously and give the
content governor an interface that makes it easy to create and manage great content.

Mandatory Personas?

It would be easy to argue that we should automatically include a content governor in our
set of design personas. These folks have an important role in our designs. If we make
their job smooth and successful, we could see a dramatic improvement in the experiences of
every user across the site.

Share Your Thoughts with Us

How do you plan for content updates? Do you have a content governor? Share your thoughts
with us on our UIE Brain Sparks blog.

About the Author

Jared M. Spool is the founder of User Interface Engineering. He spends his time working with the research teams at the company and helps clients understand how to solve their design problems. You can follow Jared on Twitter at @jmspool.