Structuring content into sequential parts
Timing is everything, the saying goes. It’s important to present the right information at the right time to readers. By structuring content into parts, information becomes more flexible and better able to be presented at the best time.
Breaking up information into smaller parts helps customers because:
- They see information only when it’s appropriate to see it.
- They don’t need to see any that won’t be relevant to them.
Structuring makes content modular, allowing it to become separate from its presentation. Writers and editors can work with designers to present the content in alternate ways. They can change when and in what order the parts of the content are presented—the sequence of the parts becomes an important factor in the information’s effectiveness.
Many kinds of content can be structured into parts that will break up the pace of the information into more manageable bits:
- How-to instructions relating to offline activities such as getting information about an elective medical procedure, installing cabinets in a kitchen, or troubleshooting a broken lawnmower
- Online tasks and processes such as enrollment in an investment program that rely on explanations about choices, considerations, and expected benefits
- Educational walkthroughs and tours
- Wizards that provide customized content based on user choices
Priorities: What does the reader need to see?
Breaking content into parts helps both authors and readers prioritize the importance of different details. From the reader’s perspective, details can vary in its importance. They may involve:
- Necessary information that everyone must view to understand or do something
- Contingent information, where someone views the content based on what they have previously done
- Optional information that may be of interest to only some people
The writer can decide what parts everyone needs and what parts will be of interest to specific people.
Readers may have different priorities and want their own path through the information. Because the content is modular, it can be approached in various ways.
Pathways: How customers move through content
As they plan their content, writers should take into account how customers need to access the information.
Readers need to know what to do first—or what they should know before even starting a task. They need to be able to navigate through the details with confidence.
When content is structured, readers don’t need to see all the information immediately. Websites using a traditional web CMS, in contrast, often present all the information at once on a single page. But a long page of instructions is hard to read and will contain information that isn’t relevant to a user’s situation. They don’t want to read the whole corporate policy manual or product troubleshooting guide to get their question answered.
Writers can structure the details within the content so that readers aren’t overloaded with information. They’ll also want to think about the various ways these details are connected to one another. They need to create a path through the information that’s aligned with the direction the reader is inclined to take.
The path that readers want to take will be determined by:
- Their situation—their individual needs and knowledge
- Their choices as they read through content
When deciding the right level of detail and the connections between different parts, writers will want to consider what would be the most efficient path for readers. At the same time, what works for most people might not work for everyone, so other paths need to be available.
One technique to break up information to help users is called progressive disclosure. It simplifies processes by presenting the most critical information initially and subsequently showing details. It provides flexibility for different reader needs.
To plan pathways, you can think about how users encounter information as a storyboard. By turning the experience of using the content into a story, you will gain a sense of the reader’s situation. Even though readers face common scenarios, it’s also true they encounter slightly different twists in what they must deal with.
When modular, the content becomes easier to translate into a design that will be successful. The design, by connecting different screens of information, plays an important role in the sequencing of parts of the content.
Sequencing: Finding the optimal order
After structuring the content into parts, writers need to arrange these parts in a preferred sequence or order, which will influence how efficient the content is for customers.
The optimal order will balance three considerations:
- What information customers are likely to need
- What preferences they may have
- Whether more complex parts are essential or optional
The connections between the parts should offer readers both direction and flexibility. The ordering of parts will:
- Minimize the time required to review relevant information.
- Enable choices about alternate pathways if readers will have different needs or interests.
With structured content, different configurations of the parts can be prototyped and tested with users. The design can be changed based on this feedback—without requiring the content to be rewritten.
In many cases, it’s best to give readers the most critical information early in a sequence so that they will be able to deal with that immediately and move on. But in cases where readers are unfamiliar or cautious about a topic, it may be better to present the most approachable information at the beginning of a sequence so they don’t feel they are making too big a commitment trying to understand unfamiliar material.
Planning sequences of information involves design choices concerning when and how much to present at any point. Decisions include:
- What order should items be shown in so that it is easiest to understand or most efficient?
- Should two items be combined when presenting them?
- Should users be encouraged to skip or defer an item and be allowed to follow up later?
The duration involved with using the content can vary. Customers may decide to review all parts in a single session, or they may decide to look at the parts at different times.
Complex activities take longer to read about than simple ones. Will content be consumed in a single online session, or over more than one session? Users may first need to read certain content, then wait for feedback or obtain additional information from elsewhere before they can view more. Certain activities involve more than one stage and will be worked on at different times.
When customers read multi-part content, they may switch between channels, starting to read the content in one channel and finishing elsewhere. Structured content supports such cross-channel use of content. For example, the first part of the content might appear in an email, with a link to additional parts on a website.
Signposts: Helping readers track their progress
Readers don’t need everything at once, but they will still want a sense of how far along they are with the materials. Because the information is broken into parts, it is possible to indicate which parts have been viewed already and which ones haven’t been.
Writers and designers can plan how to provide the user with signposts to trace their journey, by indicating:
- Steps left in an activity
- Viewing completeness
- Status of an activity associated with the content
With multi-part content, readers can focus on one part at a time. They can choose when they are ready to see more.