How to embed guidance to better govern your content

Providing useful content guidance that teams will follow can be a challenge. Like other dimensions of your content operations, your content guidance needs a strategy.

Michael Andrews

Published on Oct 27, 2022

How to embed guidance to better govern your content

Effective governance allows enterprises to consistently produce high-quality content that delivers meaningful outcomes.

But governance guidelines will only offer benefits if they are followed. Content guidance can’t be a separate layer of rules or advice that’s detached from routine content processes. It should be woven into the fabric of your content operations.

Two tools play a critical role in implementing content governance: your design system and your content model. They support the development of content that:

  • Is on-brand
  • Is clear and appropriate
  • Is complete and avoids omissions
  • Adheres to business rules and regulatory requirements

Understand the differences between a design system and content model

Most enterprises have developed a design system, and more are defining an enterprise content model. These tools have enabled enterprises to standardize their communications across various products, brands, and business units.

While design systems are best known for specifying the appearance and behavior of UI components such as buttons, many design systems also include some content guidance, typically in the form of a content style guide.

A content model, by contrast, specifies the requirements for specific content items. It guides what content is needed, rather than how to create that content.

Both tools provide guidance on how to develop content. They are meant to work together, though they may seem to overlap in what they address. 

Not all content guidance is the same. Because both a design system and content model provide content guidance, teams can be unclear about where to find guidance, especially if this guidance isn’t embedded in their processes and tools. Two sorts of reactions are common:

  1. “One kind of guidance is enough” – when individual teams primarily rely on either the design system or the content model alone, without recognizing that both are necessary to govern content successfully
  2. “Dump everything in one place” – when central teams try to cobble together the content model and design system guidance into a single resource that becomes unwieldy and offers less granular and useful guidance

When the purpose of different kinds of guidance isn’t clear, governance becomes muddled:

  1. Existing guidance gets ignored
  2. Needed guidance isn’t developed
  3. Governance objectives become diluted

Content models and design systems play distinct roles in providing content guidance. They aren’t alternatives, but rather complementary. 

As a starting point, think about the design system as governing the words in the content and the content model as governing the information those words convey.  That’s a bit of a simplification and generalization of their respective roles, but it provides a quick idea of why both are useful.

The table below provides more examples of how the design system and content model address different sides of content.

Design system content guidanceContent model content guidance
Kinds of guidance (representative examples)

Style guidance:

  • Wording (voice and tone)
  • Terminology (relating to branding, products, and customers)
  • Preferred phrasing
  • Capitalization and formatting rules

Communication patterns:

  • How to address generic user scenarios such as new user

Information requirements:

  • Mandatory and optional information to present
  • Notification and feedback messages to convey
  • Calls to action to offer
  • Choices or selections available
  • Instructions and explanations needed  
  • Image requirements

Business rules:

  • Legal or regulatory guidelines
  • Localization variants
Focus of the guidance
  • Generic
  • Globally applicable
  • Specific to a task or topic
  • Sometimes conditional (variations to support specific scenarios)

Sometimes teams attempt to make their design system address scenarios that the content model should address. They try to include specific information requirements relating to a product or a customer procedure but find that their design system isn’t set up to accommodate these situations at scale.

Define the scope of the guidance

Authors should be clear about what guidance they must follow. Large enterprises may have volumes of guidance relating to their content, which can be overwhelming for individuals to navigate and understand.

Some guidance applies widely and needs to be followed by everyone. Other guidance will be highly specific and will only concern a handful of staff or be relevant to specific types of content. Your content guidance will support both of these scenarios.

Who’s the guidance for? Guidance that applies to all content tends to be relevant to everyone. Conversely, guidance that applies only to specific content tends to be relevant to certain people. Specific guidance can relate to discrete topics or scenarios.

But in addition to varying in relevance, content guidance can differ in its criticality. 

The table below illustrates examples of how guidance can vary in its applicability.

Global guidanceSpecific guidance

Global mandatory guidance

  • List of allowed terminology

Specific mandatory guidance

  • Required fields in a content item

Global recommended guidance

  • Voice and tone guidelines illustrated via examples

Specific recommended guidance

  • Item-specific suggested guidelines for authors

How critical is the guidance? Decide whether the guidance is mandatory or optional – that is, merely recommended. This distinction will influence how easy the guidance is to implement and how consistently it will be followed.

Recommended guidelines differ from mandatory ones because they:

  • Lack hard-and-fast rules
  • Require more interpretation
  • Are more difficult to implement consistently
  • Apply to situations that could require using one’s best judgment and potentially “breaking” a suggested guideline
  • Have a scope of application that’s difficult to know in advance

Guidance that addresses issues of style, typically found in a design system, can be open to interpretation or seem optional. The more that the guidance relies on an individual’s judgment to follow, the more that it will depend on the authors following its intent by opting in. Such guidance should be seen as relevant to those expected to follow it.

Target the guidance to the right users. When guidance is not universal and won’t be relevant to everyone, be sure to target the relevant guidance to those who need to follow it. Some guidance is specific to certain kinds of content that will be worked on by only certain people. The content model specifies guidance that’s specific to a certain content type. For example, financial disclosure statements have special requirements, which can be included in content types defining this content.

Sometimes specific guidance will pertain to content that covers multiple products or topics yet is pertinent to only a single brand, business unit, or locale within the larger enterprise. This guidance can’t be embedded in specific content types because it is broader in its relevance. But it needs to be used by only a subset of people rather than everyone.

Try not to show guidance that won’t ever be relevant to specific users: it gets in their way and makes it harder for them to find the guidance that is relevant. Administrative governance, based on the user’s role in the organization, can support how such guidance is made available. It can be combined with the organization of content into collections so that content with similar governance requirements is managed together.

Embed the guidance so it’s followed

Authors need content guidance to be:

  • Accessible
  • Visible (and not forgotten)
  • Easy to understand and use

Enterprises can promote better governance by embedding their guidance in their content tools and processes where it’s available to the people who need it, when they need it.

How to embed guidance about specific content. This guidance, defined by the content model, can be easily embedded within content workflows. The content model structures content that’s created and managed within a headless CMS. The CMS authoring environment presents requirements for creating content. Authors, editors, and reviewers can see:

  • What details they need to create or approve
  • Which details are mandatory, and which are optional
  • Guidelines for writers on the intent of the content or special requirements they need to adhere to

A content model supplies a centralized direction for diverse content. It can specify requirements for a wide range of enterprise content. This guidance is baked-in to the CMS that staff use. It is presented within the authoring environment, so staff don’t need to look for the guidance elsewhere. The CMS can also check that mandatory information is included.

Options for embedding broader guidelines. The content guidance that’s defined in the design system, such as style guidelines, can vary in how it’s provided. In some organizations, this guidance is not managed centrally. Even when the guidance is intended for everyone’s use, it may be difficult to enforce its adoption, especially if various groups in the enterprise manage their content operations independently and have the discretion to make their own decisions.

In many cases, following style guidelines involves consulting design system documentation – which is short of the ideal of having this guidance immediately available in the tools used by content staff. In these cases, enterprises must rely on the willingness of staff to embrace the guidance. 

It's possible, however, to embed much of this style guidance in the CMS authoring environment. Style-checking tools such as Writer can evaluate text to determine if it conforms to style guidelines, and in some cases offer suggestions for changes.

Consider the needs of authors when crafting guidance. Think not only about the end results authors should produce, but also how they will be expected to produce those results. Guidance can be implemented in multiple ways, each of which can influence the motivations and incentives that staff have for the following guidance:

  • Perceived utility – staff want to follow the guidance because it’s useful to them individually
  • Excepted consequences – staff need to follow the guidance because internal processes or workflow approvals require it

Guidance can be either too rigid or too vague. When the guidance doesn’t match the needs of the writer, they will get stuck or will try to bypass the advice.

When embedding guidance, consider how stringent to make it. Look at how predictable the circumstances in which the guidance will be used. Check whether the proposed rules will be suitable in all situations.

Some embedded guidance must be interpreted by users. But other guidance can be automated, where systems assess whether content conforms to the guidance. Such assessment can take different forms:

  1. Enforcement, where the system validates whether the content conforms, such as whether are all required values included, and prompts users when a correction is needed
  2. Auto-enhancements, where the system adds missing components such as image descriptions or automatically corrects common mistakes
  3. Feedback, where the system provides cautions or suggestions, but gives users discretion over what to do

Make sure that the behavior of interactive guidance aligns with the needs of the authors. 

Make the guidance adaptable

Guidance must evolve to stay relevant. It should grow in coverage and update to reflect changing circumstances:

  • New business requirements, such as new features or products
  • Changing brand requirements to reflect new initiatives, brand reviews, updates, or a brand refresh
  • Revisions driven by new user insights
  • Adding new channels
  • Unifying, harmonizing, or standardizing the practices of different business units
  • Significant business changes arising from mergers, acquisitions, or spin-offs

The content model and design system will change at different paces, however. Content requirements tend to be stable over time. They can broaden in their scope, but once defined, they aren’t revised substantially unless there are major changes in business requirements. A design system can be more subject to change as teams explore new and better options.    

Develop a process to ensure your content guidance reflects your current needs. This could be a formal process where requests are made a central governance body for approval and action. In the case of optional or specific guidance, the process could be more informal or decentralized.   

Make sure that your process to update your guidance reflects its criticality – how important it will be, and who is be affected. Balance the opportunities to improve content by expanding your guidance against the potential burdens on staff who’ll be expected to follow it. For example, when updating or proposing new, globally enforced rules, you’ll likely want to follow a more rigorous review process than you would for guidelines that are merely recommended.

Remember, gaining stakeholder buy-in is crucial to successful governance.

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