Saturday, January 21, 2012

Designing content modules

In my last post, I talked about the "why" and "how" of using content modules to improve efficiency and user experience. In this post, I'll talk about some of the specific considerations in designing content modules. 

Content Module Categories

It's important to think about content modules as a whole, and not to use them for a bunch of one-off messages. Think about the type of information that you want to convey through content modules, and then categorize them. For example, in a recent project that I worked on with Theresa Putkey for Rocky View County in Alberta we decided to use these categories:

  • Alerts
  • Events/Meetings
  • Profiles
  • News
  • Related Topics
  • Contact
  • Application CTA
  • Survey
  • Interesting Facts

Categorizing content modules is extremely important for a number of reasons. Categories are a cornerstone of developing an effective taxonomy, which is they only way to automate updates of contextually relevant content. They're also important to ensure that similar types of information are presented consistently.

Content Module Types

Once you've got your key categories, you can break them down further into content types. These represent the different common types of information that you'll present in each category. You really need to have a strong understanding of your content at this point. Using the examples from the Rocky View County project, here are two of their categories broken down into standard content types:

  • Alerts:
    • Fire bans
    • Weather warnings
    • Road closures
  • Events/Meetings:
    • Basic statistics and link
    • Statistics with brief description and link
    • List of upcoming events/meetings and links

Defining content modules to this level helps to keep them focused and consistent and prevents a reactive approach to using them to publish any small bits of content that don't fit anywhere else. It also really helps writers to have a template to follow so they can quickly and easily write content that works for each type of content module.

Content Module Priorities

Depending on your website, you may want to assign each category of module with a different priority so that your CMS can pull one type of content module in preference to another. In the examples listed above, the Alert modules were the only content module given a priority one. This meant that in the spots that we wanted Alerts to appear, they would take precedence over any other content modules if they were available. If there were not, then that spot would be filled by a priority two module that met other specifications required of that spot.

Content Module Design

Once you know the type of content you'll be working with in each module, you need to define design requirements. Content modules should be designed to stand out on the page, but not compete against each other for user attention. “Alert” modules should be the most prominent element on any page. Strong CTA's should also be very prominent and obvious. All content modules should follow a consistent visual schema, with each type of content module having its own consistent structure and design. 

Some of the design decisions you'll need to consider and standardize include:
  • Visual design
  • Size and dimensions
  • Text and font size
  • Headings and phrasing
  • Information design
  • Number of characters or words per text element
  • Use of photos and/or graphics

Visual design aside, the best way to figure out these design issues is to draft some copy for a number of each type of module and get a sense of the "norm".  Then you can develop sample copy for each content module that can be used to inform the visual design and content guidelines. That way you can be sure that the design requirements actually support the content and not the other way around.

Below are two examples of different types of content modules in the Events category:

Looking at these examples, you can see how a visual designer could get a good understanding of the type and scope of content that he's designing for, and how you could easily create templates and guidelines to help writers develop consistent content across similar content modules. 

Be sure to include content modules in your writer's style guide, and include specifications for each content module type. For example, one type of content module may consist of a heading, brief description, and a descriptive link to the main topic page. You can also specify if there are any constraints such as character limitations, phrasing preferences, or tone of voice variations. 

What other ideas do you have for working with content modules? I'd love to hear other stories about what has worked well for you, or what challenges you've encountered. 

And I extend a huge "Thank You" to the Rocky View team for allowing us to reference their project work and examples in this post. 

Monday, January 9, 2012

Using Content Modules to Improve Efficiency and User Experience

What Are Content Modules?

Content modules are small chunks of content that can be placed on standard web pages, typically in the right side-bar area or at the bottom of the page. Each module contains content that can be automatically (or manually) updated or changed based on certain criteria. Some types of pages, such as a home or landing pages, can be built almost entirely by using content modules as building blocks.

Why Use Content Modules? 

The number one reason to use content modules is to provide consistent, up-to-date, relevant information across a website without having to manually update each and every page. If you build a home or landing page by using content module building blocks, the primary page content can be automatically updated to make sure that it's always fresh. On most other types of pages, content modules provide secondary, or supporting, content. Using content modules based on a clear taxonomy and specific criteria is the only efficient way to provide dynamically updated content designed to create a specific user experience across an entire website.  

Through content modules, you can create an information path for users to follow that is changeable and outside of the standard navigation. Content modules provide visual distinction and consistency to specific types of information (such as call-to-actions, article excerpts, alerts, etc) and enables you to easily update information throughout the site. If a contact number changes, simply update the information in your content management system (CMS) and all content modules used in the website that refer to that contact number will automatically update. 

Consistency between similar types of information helps users to accurately predict and find information on any page in your site. Content modules are also a great way to give your users more than they came for. If you know that people visit a specific page on your site to learn about something, use content modules to provide the next steps in learning or taking action. Correctly anticipating what your users want or need next, and providing an opportunity to proceed, goes a long way in creating a positive user experience. Content modules can keep your users engaged, on your site, and pleasantly surprised.

The specific purpose of the content modules will depend on your overall content, user, and business goals as well as on the capabilities of your CMS. Here are some ways that you can use content modules:
  • Time-sensitive themes or campaigns. In many websites, you have huge areas of static, never-changing page copy and then a blog area that is frequently updated with new content. There is often very little interplay between these areas and, editorially, there is no connection. Using content modules allows you to unify your entire website, not only by promoting your blog posts throughout your website, but also by presenting a common theme or perspective for a period of time. For instance, you may want to showcase your in-depth knowledge of your industry by sprinkling interesting and relevant facts and informational tidbits throughout your site. Or you could profile people who have inspired you or your customers (or of course you can profile your staff and your customers). You may want to highlight seasonal information or advice, or raise awareness of a specific current affair that's relevant to your business and your customers.

    To create themes you need to think like a magazine editor. Themes are determined through a strong understanding of customer interest and business strategy and are defined in advance to give content contributors an opportunity to develop relevant content. Using themes helps to prevent a "mish-mash" approach to content that often ends up just creating "noise" where every message competes with each other, rather than demonstrating a unified voice that conveys a strong message.

    Here's an easy way to think about themes: In reality, your website is a mosaic of messages. Every page, every piece of content, has a distinctly different message. Content modules are small content bites that also each have their own message. Frequently, different stakeholders are each given their content "real estate" and they're each invested in getting their message across. The result is a mosaic of messages that creates no real sense of unity or clarity. By introducing themes through content modules you're able create a layer of information on top of your static page content that combines to create a clear message (or picture) that reflects your organization. When you change the theme, the core content on the site remains the same, but the modules send a completely different message that reflects your corporate values in a new way. These changing and distinct messages are much more apparent and memorable to users than consistently presenting many competing messages.

  • Call-to-Actions. One of the most common uses of content modules is to provide standardized call-to-actions (CTAs). For each type of CTA that you need, simply develop it once and plug it in wherever it's relevant. This results in a much more efficient process and consistent set of CTAs. These can include contact information, "buy" or "apply now" messages, forms of any sort, surveys, downloads, links to more information... anything that causes the customer to take further action

  • Contextual richness. Every module should be contextually tied to the content on the page where it appears. If it's unrelated, it doesn't belong. For example, you would not place a content module with an article excerpt about weed control on a page about recycling. Similarly, you would not put an “Apply Now” call-to-action on a page that had no associated application. A strong taxonomy is essential to provide this type of contextually relevant content.
As you design your web pages and content, design a standard set of content modules that support your communication strategy and user goals. Then, pick and choose which content modules to include on which pages and assign specifications for updating the content based on a taxonomy. For instance, you may set the content modules to check for new content once a day, once a week, or seasonally at pre-defined times. And you can specify that specific modules only update if the new content contains associated tags. 

Next week, I'll discuss in more detail how to design effective content modules and the common categories and content module types. In the meantime, what are some other ways that content modules are used?