Structured content as building blocks of the user experience

How you plan your content will influence your customer’s experience. To be effective, content needs to engage its users. Enterprises must be able to compose the right experience to address a range of user needs. Structuring content with a content model provides that flexibility.

Michael Andrews

Published on May 15, 2020

Anything that’s designed depends on structure. A building needs structure, or else it will collapse. Designs need a foundation. The design of content depends on the foundation known as a content model.

First, let’s review a couple of important points from earlier blog posts:

  • The structure of content is expressed in the content model. 
  • Content models support two kinds of goals: operational, and customer experience.

The role of structured content in the customer experience is sometimes overlooked or undervalued. In this post, we will look more deeply into how structuring content supports the customer’s experience of content: how easy and enjoyable it is to use. Specifically, we will look at how structured content enables more engaging customer interaction with content—the user experience. By thinking about customers as users of information, authors can plan how they will interact with information.

How structure supports user experience

Structured content provides the building blocks for user experiences.

Good user experiences don’t just happen; they must be designed. The content structure provides the elements to compose those experiences. 

Alternatively, you look at it from the opposite perspective: it’s harder to plan the best experiences for customers unless your content is properly structured.

You need to plan both what you want to say and how users experience that. That sounds hard to do, but the task is made easier when we realize that both authors and readers rely on the same building blocks. Authors compose experiences, and users consume experiences, chunk by chunk.

The building blocks are collectively referred to as “chunks” of content. We can think of these as individual elements in a content type, groups of elements, or rich media assets (images, video, or audio). 

Although all these building blocks are called chunks, it’s important to keep in mind that not all chunks are the same. Some are small, some are bigger.  And they convey different kinds of detail.

From a communications perspective, a chunk represents a meaningful unit of content, such as:

  • A message about an opportunity of something new
  • Nuggets of useful data or facts
  • A description
  • A thumbnail of an object that a reader might want to learn more about
  • An audio snippet

These chunks may summarize, preview, or promote more extensive content about the topic. A chunk of content is successful if it helps the user move toward the next step in their journey. 

Chunks help busy readers

Readers are busy reviewing content on their smartphones and other devices. They expect information will be presented in scannable, bite-sized chunks. 

An important reason that authors should structure content is to improve the reader’s experience of using the content. Structured content is easier to scan and understand. It’s easier for readers to digest. 

When content is structured into different elements, it can provide breakpoints in the amount of information presented so that only some of it is shown initially.

Readers see a headline and decide to read more. Or they scan a question in search of an answer. With structure, authors are able to plan how readers will encounter chunks of content. 

And as we will see shortly, chunks can do even more. Chunks can:

  1. Make sure that the right information is displayed when it needs to be.
  2. Let users take action on content.

Chunks connect content details to screens

Authors will decide three issues relating to content chunks:

  1. The right kinds of details to include in the content model that will be useful in many situations
  2. What specific chunks to present to users in a given scenario
  3. Where to present them, such as screen design components that will display the content

When authors adopt a structured content approach, they begin to think about content in a new way. Instead of creating inflexible articles that get displayed as a single web page, they create chunks of content that can be displayed in multiple ways.

The structure connects the writer to the screen where the writer’s words show up. And importantly, the writer isn’t only writing for a single screen, but, in fact, for many.

Writers should think about how they can use building blocks such as headlines or titles, descriptions, images, and key factual information. 

Chunks of text can be of different sizes and play different roles. For example, they may be:

  • Overlines (or “eyebrows”) that announce a theme
  • Headlines or titles
  • Subtitles
  • Labels
  • Captions

These elements can be rolled up into larger chunks. Labels, for example, can be associated with images or data.  As different elements are combined, they convey changing levels of meaning, from plain and basic to multilayered and rich.

The chunks are expressed in the user interface. Chunks of content can be displayed within UI elements or containers, such as:

  • Banners
  • Cards
  • Data tables
  • Lists
  • Sections (of an email newsletter, for example)

Chunks provide presentational flexibility

Our building blocks can be arranged in various ways. Structuring content into chunks provides flexibility and options. Instead of being tied to a single webpage, the chunks can be used in different channels and at different times. Authors can think about the context in which chunks of content appear. Information and messages can be used in many places and play different roles. How might readers encounter and use the content?

Earlier, we mentioned that structuring content allows users to preview a longer piece of content. But chunks of content have another benefit: they can be arranged to support goals.

Chunks allow authors to place the same message in multiple places. Authors may want to:

  • Repeat information on different screens, so people have repeated exposure to a message
  • Present information multiple times to allow different points of entry into information
  • Reorder the presentation of information to match the needs of different scenarios

Certain chunks, such as tips and promotions, can be helpful in many places, though it can be hard to know precisely when a specific user will want to access this information. Authors can present information that readers might not know about but might be interested in.

Sometimes chunks of content get expressed as notifications or recommendations, but they are often displayed within a screen alongside other chunks.

When you find that certain messages can be used in many places, they should become chunks that are part of your content model.

Chunks encourage user actions

Authors will want to present the right mix of elements in a chunk of content so that the information is noticed and acted on. Users need to see what they need to know to accomplish what they want to do. 

What might readers want to do after seeing a message or a chunk of information? They might:

  • Read more
  • Scan to look for similar items
  • Select or save for later
  • Choose to add to a list
  • Filter by criteria
  • Rate or like
  • Compare items
  • Share with friends
  • Confirm (a date or option)
  • Order (a product)

Thinking about actions helps authors focus on the reader’s goals. All content that’s presented on a screen should have a purpose and a goal. Consider why you might present information to readers at different times. What actions would you like them to do?  Then, working backwards, ask: what information is essential to present in order to encourage users to take that action?  What values need to be displayed?  Those elements should be present in the content model.

Planning for user interaction when structuring content

Structuring content breaks content into elements that can be connected to objects in the user interface, which could be an app or email.

Consider the most common contexts where customers will see your content. Often it will appear within a standard layout pattern that’s part of a design system that your enterprise uses. The below image from Google’s Material Design shows how a card presents information and associated actions. These UI elements can be connected to elements in the content model—the chunks of content to show.  The design pattern suggests the kinds of elements to use. The author needs to plan chunks of content to fill in those areas.

When content is considered together with user interaction, content planning becomes a two-way process. Well-structured content gives designers options when thinking about how and when to present it. And thinking about how content will be presented can also provide ideas on the elements that need to be distinct chunks in the content model.

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