Reality Check: High Fidelity Content Enhances the Design Process

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If there’s one thing all digital content strategists will agree on, it’s that any digital design project works best when content plays a central role from the beginning. And yet, until recently, this was rarely the case. More often than not, projects relegated content to the last minute, when a beleaguered copywriter had to shoehorn it into designs that looked amazing, but were in no way based on the reality of the content they needed to support.

I can recall any number of my fellow content strategists addressing this issue on a regular basis––heads nodded and eyes rolled as talks were given, blog posts were written, and tweets were “favorited.” We’d all been there, done that, got the Excel spreadsheet.

But lately, I’m seeing a complete reversal in content strategy fortunes. Organizations of all kinds now recognize the crucial role content, in all its forms, plays in supporting the experiences they want to create and maintain with their customers. As a result, we have a happy scenario whereby content strategy enjoys greater “name brand” recognition than ever before. User experience designers welcome us content strategists early (well, earlier) onto projects, and project managers no longer arch skeptical eyebrows when we explain why our day rates are higher than the 22-year-old junior copywriter’s.

However, with new technology and new market opportunities emerging every day, the pace of digital design has increased exponentially. High fidelity prototypes (HFPs) have emerged to meet the needs of projects, stakeholders, and customers alike, and content strategists need to find ways of keeping pace. One of the best methods is high fidelity content, or HFC.

A ‘Bit of Copy’ Can Go a Long Way

In the past few years, UX designers have benefitted from a veritable gold rush in terms of the prototyping tools they now have at their disposal. Gone are the days when a simple paper sketch or a clickable wireframe––or even a decent Photoshop or Illustrator mock-up––would do the trick. Today, high fidelity prototyping tools that use HTML + CSS (InVision, Marvel, Principle, Atomic, Sketch, Axure, and Adobe Comet to name a few) help UX designers create page designs they can show in multiple states, complete with transitions and interactions.

With such fully realized designs and opportunities for realistic interactions, HFPs are crying out for similarly realistic content. High fidelity content is everything that placeholder text Lorem Ipsum is not. It’s real words in headlines, standfirsts (introductory paragraphs), and body copy. It’s descriptive captions under photos, realistic form field labels, and meaningful calls to action on buttons. In an ideal world, it’s copy that has been discussed (if not finalized) with the brand and marketing teams, and maybe even legal.

Where once this kind of content had taken a backseat to the strategy and design work at the start of projects, its development was now starting to run parallel with the strategic work––or even precede it––especially if HFPs were in demand for early stage user testing. I found this out the hard way when I was working on a project for a financial services client. While I was busy with my content audit, the UX team had steamed ahead with a prototype, pushing it into testing and then into early stage stakeholder feedback sessions.

Then, while working for an insurance client, before I’d even lined up a single stakeholder interview, I found myself writing “a bit of copy” for the prototype. Like a number of senior content strategists I know, I have a journalism and copywriting background. Project managers know this, so it’s no big surprise when they ask me to lend tactical support alongside the strategic work.

However, when this happened again, I must confess I got a bit grumpy and thought, “Why don’t you just hire a copywriter? You’ll save yourself a lot of money!” But when I saw how the copy I’d written for the HFP was opening doors with stakeholders and uniting the project team, I decided that high fidelity content could be the way of the content strategy future.

Where to Get It

When it comes to populating high fidelity prototypes, there are three main sources for high fidelity content. The one you choose will depend on the type of project and the discussions you want to facilitate with your users and stakeholders. (In this article we’re focusing on written content; video and audio content, generally speaking, don’t have quite as much impact on page design, although they certainly come with their own set of creation and maintenance considerations!)

Create

The best way, of course, is the most difficult: write it yourself. For many writers, given a clear brief and a strict word or character count, they can churn out sparkling copy in no time. But here’s the rub: we’re often in unchartered waters at this point. If we haven’t had the benefit of a proper assess stage, we may not know with certainty what’s wrong with the current content. Also, we may not have much of a feel for where stakeholders want to go with their future state content, or any inkling of the business objectives that content needs to support. Plus, we may be working with old or ill-defined messaging and tone-of-voice guidelines.

All of which combine to equal … a pretty slim content brief.

Obviously, any “real” content is better than Lorem Ipsum. So if it’s a case of some basic headlines and highlights copy or call to action labels, by all means write something yourself (or cajole your friendly copywriter into sparing an hour or two).

Recycle

A better option is to use any current state content that will work for the proposed designs. This is my preferred approach. Not only do you save time and the headache of trying to create useful copy in a complete vacuum, but by using existing content, you can shine a light on the need for:

  • A proper assessment of current state content, and/or
  • A competitor review to understand best practice messaging and content approach.

Acquire

While I would never advocate “stealing” as an approach to HFC creation, sometimes a little light pilfering might be your only option to move the project (and your stakeholders) from fantasyland into reality. This is especially true if you’re working on a completely new product or service. The business in question just might not have any existing content you can recycle or even use as the baseline for something new.

That’s when a rapid competitor review will become your best weapon. Find businesses that are in a similar or complementary space to yours and extract content that’s suitable for your purpose. Your business may not offer “find and compare” functionality today, but your competitor does, so employ their messaging and calls to action in your prototype. You will most likely want to re-work this copy later, but it will serve its purpose in the short term.

How to Create It

When it comes to actually creating the content, you should be moving away from more old-fashioned tools such as Word. Instead, why not give a lightweight mark-up language such as Markdown a try? It’s easy to learn and helps you create content that’s separate from the presentation layer. This isn’t too important when we’re just at the HFP stage. But, a Markdown copydeck can evolve with the project and create efficiencies with automated conversion to a variety of content management systems.

Of course, many organizations still live and die by Word, so you may need to keep using it as a way of maintaining your working copydeck. One copywriter I worked with created a realistic mock-up of the page design using a table in a Word doc template. This allowed stakeholders to review copy in between prototype iterations. Its similarity to the page designs ensured that “visually oriented” stakeholders didn’t have to imagine where the button might be or in what order the messaging might appear.

The Benefits of High Fidelity Content

Content strategy overall brings change. Here are some typical examples with business-wide implications:

  • Organizations that want to give their customers regular, relevant content suddenly find themselves in the publishing business, when they’d previously thought of themselves as being in the widget business.
  • Companies that want to ensure people can see all their digital content on mobile devices suddenly find they have content that just won’t port onto smaller screens.
  • Companies that want to deliver dynamic, personalized, future-proofed, omni-channel content experiences suddenly find their technology platforms aren’t up to the job.

Here are some typical examples of changes content strategy can bring to the day-to-day work of creating and maintaining digital content:

  • It exposes sites choked with old, irrelevant content that hasn’t seen the light of an open browser window in years.
  • It uncovers mixed messages, badly written copy, poorly edited video clips, and dead-end journeys.
  • It reveals inconsistent or even incomplete product propositions.

Naturally, change on any scale takes time. I’ve often told clients that content strategy is a long game played against a fast clock. With HFPs running down that clock ever faster, it’s reassuring to know that high fidelity content is able to meet UX design needs and still deliver value within the content strategy process. Here’s how.

HFC spotlights the current state

I’d love to say that in this new world, where projects are becoming more content strategy friendly, the all-important “assess” stage is a foregone conclusion. Sadly, clients often don’t see the need for it or don’t want to pay for it. Until recently there wasn’t much content strategists could do about that. However, by contributing high fidelity content to the high fidelity prototype, you can use this as an opportunity to flag issues with the current state.

For example, clients often try to take the “lift and shift” approach to content migrations, for example moving old content into new designs in the misguided hope this tactic will somehow save massive amounts of money and time. (Spoiler alert: it never does!) If the client has agreed to the development of an HFP, you can populate it using the “recycle” approach as a way of exposing some existing content problems that should not be lifted or shifted anywhere.

  • Find some copy with typos, or copy that doesn’t adhere to the new tone-of-voice guidelines, or is missing a link to key legal caveats.
  • Use videos that feature the wrong screenshots of the product, don’t have a call to action at the end, or are using the old brand logo.
  • Feature the “latest” blog post on the proposed homepage design with its timestamp from six months ago.
  • Include some real tweets in the “social feed” panel that are nothing but spam.

Using recycled HFC in this way can buy you time for a more complete qualitative content assessment and highlight just how much content work might still need to happen.

HFC drives consensus

High fidelity prototypes help you involve all types of stakeholders from the very beginning of the design process. For example, by bringing legal into the process earlier, you can minimize changes during the crucial sign-off stage. However, the team that’s most enamored with HFPs is marketing. Marketing teams are often the sponsors for digital design projects and their background can influence them to focus on content in its end state. In other words, they see content as “the deliverable” rather than content as “the process.” They want to get to the “good stuff”… and fast!

While it would be nice to think those content marketers (and other stakeholders) would come to project kick-off meetings with detailed briefs, explicit likes and dislikes, requirements, color preferences, and more, most of us know this is rarely the case. The more familiar scenario is a non-committal, “I’ll know it when I see it.”

By using an HFP with brand new content––or content “on loan” from a competitor––you can sharpen stakeholders’ minds around key decisions. You could find yourself having conversations like these:

  • In the last round of testing people really liked those “how to” links on the product details page. But there’s no one on staff who can write that type of content …
  • Is this the right tone of voice for our new product/site?
  • We offer something the competition doesn’t (or do something better). How do we bring that to the forefront?
  • A newsfeed on the “Press” page is a great idea. But do we have the tech infrastructure to support that?

The HFP, with its lovely HFC, gives stakeholders a taste of the “good stuff,” as well as the chance to kick some tires and offer feedback at a point in the process that informs, rather than derails. With any luck, you may emerge from one of these review sessions with some detailed content requirements and even the odd success metric.

HFC delivers better user testing feedback

It’s no secret that user testing can help de-politicize all manner of contentious project issues. Now, with the trend of designing in the browser, we can put more fully realized screens in front of users much sooner in the design process. Even if you can’t get the budget to do “proper” user testing, an HFP will still elicit valuable feedback from any guerrilla testing you’re able to do. Real content, real interactions, and real journeys combine to produce better early stage feedback and validation from relevant audiences that no wireframe with splotches of Lorem Ipsum could ever hope to replicate.

Keeping Pace with High Fidelity Content

As devices have proliferated, design patterns have matured, and user interfaces have evolved, user experience designers have kept pace with high fidelity prototypes. By employing high fidelity content, content strategists can keep pace too. We can evaluate, ideate, and gather feedback about our content approach much sooner than we ever could before. High fidelity content also affords a unique way to instill content strategy rigor in projects that might not think they need it. And last, but by no means least, high fidelity content helps everyone involved in the digital design process deliver flexible, meaningful content capable of creating relevant, engaging user experiences. Now that’s a reality worth embracing.

Moore, L. (2016). Reality Check: High Fidelity Content Enhances the Design Process. User Experience Magazine, 16(1).
Retrieved from http://uxpamagazine.org/high-fidelity-content/

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