Monday, March 7, 2011

Content Strategy Deliverable: The Content Review (aka Heuristic or Expert Review)

This article is part of Rahel Bailie's series on content strategy deliverables. To read all articles in the series, visit Rahel's content strategy deliverables blog list at Intentional Design Inc. You can also follow Rahel on twitter @Rahelab.

Content Review sample report

One of the best ways to get an initial picture of content strengths and weaknesses is through an expert review. Also known as a heuristic review, or a content scorecard, the expert review shows how well your current content stands up to industry standards and best practices. 

Benefits of expert reviews
Expert reviews are great for demonstrating content strengths and weaknesses to a client. They’re faster and more affordable than user testing, and can be scaled to meet client and project needs. In conjunction with a content audit, they’re an effective and efficient way to get a really good understanding of the scope of a potential redesign or rewrite of the site. They’re also incredibly valuable in helping to establish project focus and priorities.

Limitations of expert reviews
An expert review is subjective. The quality of the findings is completely dependent on your expertise as a content reviewer. And you need a deep knowledge of writing mechanics and technique, usability and interaction design, information design, content marketing, and branding if you intend to provide holistic results. It’s better to limit the scope of the review to one specific area rather than provide feedback on areas outside of your expertise. It’s also a good idea to have three independent reviewers work through the same heuristics, if possible. Then they collaboratively analyze discrepancies between their opinions and provide focused, consolidated findings. This eliminates some of the potential bias of a single reviewer. 

It’s important to note that an expert review is a diagnostic tool, and content validation should always include testing with real customers. 

Determining the heuristics
It can be a challenge to find the right set of heuristics, or criteria, to include in your evaluation. Typically, I include detailed criteria across 5 – 8 core categories. The focus of the heuristics depends on project and client needs, and your specialized expertise. has some great usability and design guidelines, many of which focus on content. There are tons of different usability and user-centred design guidelines, but they’re all adapted from Jakob Nielsen’s classic set of ten usability heuristics. Think about how these heuristics relate to content and make sure these areas are represented in your criteria. Finally, keep in mind the current best practices for social media and customer engagement when you’re finalizing your criteria. 

Make sure the criteria are specific, granular, can be demonstrated easily, and are organized into relevant categories. In the attached expert review sample, the table of contents shows the categories. The report detail pages will include one page per category, each page listing the specific criteria. In the sample, I’ve demonstrated how one category (Is the information design logical, effective, and consistent?) is made up of eight specific criteria.

Conducting the review
I like to conduct expert reviews around user scenarios. It helps establish a user-centred perspective, keeps you focused on priority areas, and provides a good cross-section of page types. Choose two or three key scenarios to evaluate. 

Create a spreadsheet that includes all of your criteria, the pages you’ll be reviewing, and plenty of space for notes. This is for your eyes only! As you work through the scenarios, evaluate each page based on the criteria. It’s easiest to do multiple sweeps through the pages, focusing on different elements each time. 

Documenting the findings
You end up with LOADS of data from an expert review! The challenge is in boiling it down to key messages that are useful to your client. I always start by providing the big picture, and then drilling down to more detail. For each category, I like to show an example of one criterion with specific comments and recommendations. If a client needs more clarification about specific criteria that I did not highlight, I talk them through it or provide an example at their request. Usually, the focus of the report is on high-level findings and recommendations.

I’d love to hear from other people who conduct content or usability expert reviews. Do you have any other tips or advice? What’s worked for you, or what challenges have you had?


  1. Fantastically useful, many thanks for sharing

  2. Wonderful post! You've made some very astute observations and I am thankful for the the effort you have put into your writing. Its clear that you know what you are talking about. I am looking forward to reading more of your sites content.
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