Content discovery on a budget

This guest blog post is written by Peter van Grieken, a freelance interaction designer with a passion for accessibility.

Content discovery is an essential part of content design. Doing research at the start of a project also enables us to produce content that meets our users’ needs and matches their mental models.

Ideally, you work with a user researcher who helps you understand your audience, their needs and motivations, and the language they use. But unfortunately, not everybody can pair up with a user researcher.

Since we want to make sure that we still move in the right direction, we need to be creative about the ways we collect user feedback throughout the process.

This article describes a prototyping technique that every content designer can use to do discovery themselves.

The content prototype

Before designing any piece of content, it helps to prototype it first. Prototypes are often used by digital and product designers as a way to gain insights without actually having to fully build the product.

The question you should be asking when building a prototype is “What is the cheapest and fastest way we can start learning?”

A content prototype is a cheap and easy technique I learned from Ida Aalen's talk on user testing for any budget. It helps you identify questions your users might have about the content before you actually write it. The content you need for this prototype doesn’t need to be final, you’re just writing enough to learn about the user needs.

Building a prototype

Let’s say I’m writing a guide to accessibility for UX Designers. Of course, I did some desk research and found a lot on forums and social channels already, but I didn’t get input from actual users yet to identify the questions they might have. I want to build a prototype to test with my audience, in this case, UX designers.

For this test, I’ll write just the headline and a short 2-sentence introduction. And just to make it look a bit more real, I added an image.

Accessibility for UX Designers slide.

I used a static design tool for this, but you can make this using any word processor. The point is not to make it pretty, we just need something to test with.

Create a survey

Now I’m going to create a survey on Google Forms with only one question: ”Write down 1-3 questions you expect will be answered on this page.”

Google form example.

In user research, it’s important not to ask people about solutions. We want to ask them open-ended questions that help us uncover their needs. And by limiting them to 3 questions, we force them to prioritise.

Share the survey with your audience

The last step is to post the link to places where my target audience hangs out. In this case, that might be LinkedIn groups, Slack channels, or Meetup groups (always ask for permission from the admins, of course).

Run this survey for a couple of days, and it should give you an idea of the questions you need to address on the page. I already got 13 useful responses one day after sharing it.

Google form responses

Some of the answers we get from this test might be:

  • ”How do I assess my current design for accessibility?”,
  • ”What are the most common mistakes designers make?”,
  • ”Which interaction patterns should I follow?”.

Other answers need more research, especially when they point to a specific solution (like ”a free whitepaper”).

Not every answer you get will be useful, but the results you’ll get from this survey can help you identify users needs before you start writing the actual content.

Gather the results

Because I’m using Google Forms, the results are conveniently saved directly in a spreadsheet. These results should give me a sense of the questions I need to address on the page. And even though this is not exactly scientific research, with enough responses, I can start to prioritise user needs.

This can now serve as the structure for the content I need to produce.

Everybody can do content discovery

Discovery and user research are essential parts of content design. As Sarah Winters writes in her book, ”content discovery helps us ensure that when you move to the next phase, you’re moving in the right direction.”

Thankfully even on a limited budget, there are plenty of ways to learn from our users. We just need to be a bit more creative in the ways we gather feedback. Content prototypes give us an easy and affordable way to do that.

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