When the Twain Shall Meet: Content Strategy and User Research

Jan 7

We are currently engaged in redesigning our own website—a long-overdue undertaking, we know. As the saying goes, “The cobbler’s children have no shoes,” and we’ve been running around barefoot for a while now.

As UX professionals ourselves, we know how seriously we have to take our redesign effort and how important it is that we follow our own tried-and-true ADePT process—from ground-up analysis to concept-validating user testing.

One of the major tasks in this undertaking, though, is one that is not nested anywhere explicitly within our process: content strategy.


Content is King! Long live the King!”—Karen McGrane


Why isn’t content strategy an inherent part of our process? Well, two reasons, and both of them seem to fall within the “industry standard” for excuses: (1) The client typically adopts the role of “content strategist”; and (2) we consider user research our own form of “content strategy.”

The user research we conduct at Design For Use is an in-depth analysis of who users are, how they behave, and what they want. So it makes sense that, once we know as much as possible about the users, we’d assume that we know about the content they need or want to consume. And, sure, that’s true to an extent, but it turns out there’s a lot more to “content strategy” than meets the eye.

So…both of those excuses are, to some degree, appropriate. With most of our clients, content is their baby. They have their own content creators, and they want to stick with what they know. And user research seems to have a lot to do with content strategy. But, again, they are not synonymous, a lamentable fact we discovered when starting to come up with our own content strategy.

Because we don’t have a slot dedicated to content strategy in our ADePT process, we’re trying to figure out where and how it fits. We’re pretty sure it’s got a lot to do with user research, but we’re not sure exactly how much the two disciplines overlap or how they interact.

Let’s find out.


Step 1: What Is Content Strategy?

Here are a couple great definitions of content strategy:


Content strategy plans for the creation, publication, and governance of useful, usable content.”—Kristina Halvorson, A List Apart


The main goal of content strategy is to use words and data to create unambiguous content that supports meaningful, interactive experiences.”—Rachel Lovinger, Boxes and Arrows


Okay. So a good content strategy makes sure that whatever you put on your website is reaching your users, and that they get it, and that they can use it. From here, it sounds like the first step in content strategy should be figuring out who our users are, what they want, what they need, and what they understand. Sounds a lot like user research…Let’s investigate further.


Step 2: What Comprises Content Strategy?

According to Kristina Halvorson, who actually wrote an entire book about the subject, content strategy encompasses editorial strategy, web writing, metadata strategy, SEO, content-management strategy, and content channel distribution strategy.

Lots of strategizing here.

Basically this is telling us that content strategy isn’t just about the user-facing stuff like articles and videos and when to post on Facebook and Twitter. It also has to do with the back end—creating systems and structures that make archiving and searching for content a richer, easier experience.

Jonathan Kahn, creator of Lucid Plot, says that content strategy addresses two primary questions: (1) What content are we creating and why are we creating it? and (2) Who plans, creates, and maintains the content?

Okay…now it’s starting to sound like a departure from traditional user research. We don’t typically get into the nuts and bolts of content, beyond what the users tell us they want and what the stakeholders tell us is possible. Let’s keep digging.


Step 3: How Do You Do Content Strategy?

Practically speaking, content strategy has several components. The diagram below outlines the major milestones in content strategy, but keep in mind it’s a lot more complicated than it looks.


content strategy


Basically, the recipe for a good content strategy involves a little bit of scheduling, a little bit of schema-ing, and a whole lot of researching .


How Does Content Strategy Fit with User Research?

Well…the first three steps in the diagram also happen to be the first three steps in a traditional user research approach: Conduct stakeholder interviews to figure out target audiences’ needs and goals; devise idealized pathways to meeting those goals; then figure out where the gaps are between the real and the ideal. Check it out:




The takeaway here is clear: Content strategy needs user research. But is that a real surprise? What discipline couldn’t benefit from understanding the needs, goals, and behaviors of target audiences?

The real question is: Is the inverse true, too? Does user research need content strategy?

Meh. The truth is, you can do user research without content strategy, but you can’t do content strategy without user research; you can’t figure out what to communicate to your users if you don’t know who your users are or what they want. Basically, user research is the foundation for any project and informs how that project proceeds.


Should Content Strategy Be Part of Every UX Project?

So, content strategy needs user research; UX design needs user research; does it follow, then, that UX design needs content strategy?


Content precedes design. Design in the absence of content is not design, it’s decoration.”—Jeffrey Zeldman, Zeldman.com


The simple answer: Absolutely. Simply put, content is vital to UX. Without content, there is no UX. Who wants a website or mobile app with literally nothing going on? And, what’s more, who cares what that website or mobile app looks like or does?

Content strategy should be part of every UX project, period.


It turns out that content strategy is a core discipline of user experience design. We’ve all practiced it to an extent, but most of us have neither been doing enough, nor getting the timing right.”—Jonathan Kahn, Lucid Plot


Why Isn’t Content Strategy Already Part of Every UX Project?

Where’s the rub? The rub lies in who owns the content strategy, and how willing your client is to give up that control. It may be that you become a content strategy expert; it may be that you hire an expert content strategist; or it may be that your client has their own content strategy team. Regardless of where the strategy is coming from, user researchers and UX designers need to team up with content and get on the same page, as soon as possible. Throwing content strategy into the mix after a design is nearly complete does a disservice to the UX design team as well as the client.

For our part, we’re opting to become our own content strategy experts—do-it-yourselfers, if you will. You’ll no doubt be hearing about our experiences in the not-too-distant future…More to come.



Annett-Baker, R. (4/14/2010). Why You Need a Content Strategist. Retrieved from http://boagworld.com/content-strategy/content-strategist/

Halvorson, K. (12/16/ 2008). The Discipline of Content Strategy. Retrieved from http://alistapart.com/article/thedisciplineofcontentstrategy

Kahn, J. (9/9/2009). Content Strategy for the Web Professional. Retrieved from http://lucidplot.com/2009/09/09/diy-content-strategy/

Lovinger, R. (3/27/2007 ). Content Strategy: The Philosophy of Data. Retrieved from http://boxesandarrows.com/content-strategy-the-philosophy-of-data/

Maier, A. (7/20/2010). Complete Beginner’s Guide to Content Strategy. Retrieved from http://www.uxbooth.com/articles/complete-beginners-guide-to-content-strategy/#what

Zeldman, J. (5/6/2008). Content Precedes Design. Retrieved from http://www.zeldman.com/2008/05/06/content-precedes-design/





Posted by: David Richard

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