Content discovery: why you should do it

Sarah Winters, , Content design

Discovery is another term stolen from the agile way of working.

It is a way of finding out more about your organisation and what your audience needs from you. Content discovery can tell you about:

  • your audience,
  • what your organisation thinks it wants,
  • what your organisation actually needs,
  • when you should publish what,
  • what channels you should use to communicate (and when).

You can apply discovery to whole websites or single items. It’s only the time you take that will really change.

Squishy humans

You can also use discovery to help others in the organisation understand what you are doing and why. This is particularly helpful when dealing with people who have sign-off.

I’ve found the best way of getting people to sign off content with minimum fuss is to bring them on the journey with me.

1. Start with stats (aka finding out about your audience)

You can start discovery with stats and analytics.

You need to find out your audience’s vocabulary and mental models. You can also work out when people need info (Google analytics can show you spikes in traffic). The best way, of course, is user research.

If you can’t do that, use Google analytics and forums. (I talked about how to do this at World IA day if you want more information.)

You know I struggle with traditional content audits, they only tell you what you have, not what you want or need. If you do have one though, make sure it has analytics like:

  • pages in priority order for your audience,
  • in-page search terms,
  • referrals (knowing where your audience is coming from will help you take information to them).

I’d say have your bounce rates too but make sure they are appropriate to the page. For example, on the GOV.UK VAT page, we wanted people to get in and go away as quickly as possible. We knew from research, that most people just wanted the number (which is why it is at the top of the page).

Ideally, that page would be successful if the user visit was 10 seconds or less. That would be really wrong though if our users were on a longer page with 450 words and a call to action at the bottom of the page.

Make sure your perception of the usefulness of the page is based on what the page is trying to do.

2. Get your business goals (aka finding out what your organisation thinks it wants)

Of course, your content should support your business goals. These should all be in your content strategy (if you have one). But I can honestly say, at least 50% of the organisations I work with don’t have clear business goals for digital or even, goals that digital has a role in. That can make it harder but not impossible.

All you need to do is make some up.

I can assure you (based on experience) someone will correct you, very quickly, if you get the business goals wrong. Once you have what your business wants and you take your user needs, stats and analytics, you’ll (hopefully) see a pattern. You need to turn push publishing (what your org wants) to pull publishing (what your users want from you). 

I’ve written about push/pull publishing in this blog post, so I won’t go into more detail here.

3. Talk to your experts

You need the information you are going to produce. If your organisation has some in-house experts, go and chat to them.

What you need from the conversation

Expertise – distilled.

They’ve probably got 20 years experience in this thing you are looking at. Use it.

Any offline behaviour you haven’t seen.

Experts have anecdotes as well as hard evidence – you should look at both. If your experts are asked the same thing over and over at parties, it’s either just a conversation starter or they have a targeted view of what people think. Your content expertise will help you take decisions on what you will use and what you won’t.

Anything your experts have to constantly repeat.

If your experts have to say it over and over to colleagues, they are getting the questions from somewhere – would it be better if the answers were made publicly available? The answer could be to put information on the intranet (for example, if colleagues most want to know when they are in the office). But repeating information a lot indicates a gap.

By talking to the experts about the content they are most interested in, you are showing them that their experience matters. This can also help with sign-off later. There’s more in this blog post: ‘done is better than perfect’.

Same thing, different view

By the end of your discovery you will have:

  • your online audience’s view,
  • your experts’ views,
  • some idea of missing information (this will have come from your experts’ anecdotes and in-page search terms),
  • your organisation’s current view (your current information or business goals if you have them).

Most of these views will be the same – people are probably heading in the same direction. They are just looking at it from different angles.

So, take your business goals, your stats, your expert views and sketch out what’s most important to all 3 areas: your business, your users and your experts. Work out how you are going to give your audience what they need, without swamping it with what your organisation wants to say. User needs and content design will help you do this.

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