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DTDT: What Is Content? [And Who Cares?]

Note: I first wrote this post for a blog that no longer exists, but when Jeff Parks and Kristina Mauser rebooted their site at Follow the UX Leader, they asked former guest posters if we’d like the chance to post our content on our own sites now. I re-read this post, originally written in December 2011, and found it just as true today. Enjoy!

If you hang around the user experience world very long, you’ll learn that one of our obsessions is DTDT — no, not Do the Damn Thing — but Define the Damn Thing. Bless our hearts, it can seem that we love little more than endlessly debating the what of what we’re doing.

When it comes to the content side of things, this tendency can be both helpful and harmful. It shouldn’t surprise anyone to learn that people who work with content love to debate definitions, but we’re just as guilty of losing ourselves in the weeds as anyone else.

I have worked on several projects in my career that involved moving into a new content management system, and each time, the team has to tackle similar questions: What should we put into the CMS? What is content?

On the surface, these sound like simple questions. Of course, you put the content in the CMS. You know, the stuff on the website. Like, articles. And the templates for the articles, those too. Because that’s what people come to the website for. That must be the content. OK, super. Got it.

But what about the instructional copy? You know, the words that may just appear on one page of the site — the instructions on the registration page, for example, or on the shopping cart page. Those items are words….surely they must also be content.

Hmm. But the shopping cart actually lives on a different server — it’s a third-party app that we “integrated” into the site by making the templates match. In fact, we don’t even share a single CSS — we took the one for the main site and copied it over to the server where the shopping cart is, because we couldn’t sort out some security issues easily, and that was faster, even if it’s a pain to remember that and keep everything in sync. Well, all right. That instructional copy on the cart might be content, but we’ll have to keep it outside the CMS.

We also have a big image library that we’ve been managing on Sharepoint, instead of in our CMS. We use these images in our print campaigns as well as on our website, so we really need to manage them carefully to ensure we don’t confuse things. Are those images content? If we pull them into the CMS, how will we know if we’re using the right ones in print?

Then there are our business rules. Our site is personalized for each customer, based on past purchases. We have specially designed rules that govern this personalization, and while the customers do not “see” the rules, they see the results of them. Are those rules content? Our CMS can handle dynamic page generation based on sophisticated metadata — and that’s all to do with content. So, into the CMS it goes — right??

Despite doing this kind of project many times, I’ve never yet seen a situation where these questions can be easily answered. Often, the “answers” depend on the person who’s charged with answering the questions — your IT team will give different answers than your marketing or product development teams. None are necessarily right or wrong, of course.

How can you sort through the confusion?

My best recommendation always goes back to the business goal. What do you need to achieve? Are you working to increase sales? Improve productivity in the customer service department? Improve customer reviews? Many times, when I’ve seen disagreement about what content is, it’s because teams also disagree about the business goal, or they lose sight of the goal in the weeds of their own discipline.

It’s usually not worth spending all your political capital on winning this kind of fight. Instead, make sure that the content — whatever you judge that to be — is easily manageable by the business owners. That’s the real fight worth winning.

Do whatever you have to do to keep regularly changing information accessible to the business owner of that information, or to ensure that things that have a make-or-break effect on your business can be easily fixed when old, broken or otherwise ineffective.

Don’t worry about what they call it. Content…images…rules…ads…text…video…just get the process right so you can meet your customers’ expectations.

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