On November 30, 2013 I watched the Auburn game.  Alabama had to win for it to be their game.  The game ended on a spectacular 57-yard missed field goal attempt landing in the arms of Chris Davis of Auburn standing 9 yards deep in the end zone.  It was the one where Chris Davis thought to run out of the end zone and 100 yards for a touchdown.

Chris Davis will forever be on a football highlight reel.  Chris Davis will forever have his moment etched in history for all to see.  Every mention of the Iron Bowl will have the 2013 Auburn last second runback.

With one second on the clock and one failure to perform a given task, everything changed.  In one second, it would have been a tie going into overtime.  That might even be like a project ending on time and on budget.

Information Technology projects have similar risks.  We execute our game plan.  We follow our playbook.  We have prepared for this opponent.  Talented players fill every position.  Our team has experience.  We call plays based on current circumstance and pre-determined situations.  Just protect the ball – uh, project.

One event can change everything.  One second can unravel weeks of hard work and preparation put into the project.  Think about your next action.  Think about possible outcomes.  Don’t let failure to mitigate one risk destroying your project.  Don’t suffer from analysis paralysis however, be productively paranoid.

More importantly, don’t miss the opportunity to be like Chris Davis.  Be ready when it is your opportunity to shine.  Be in the right place.  Have the ability to catch the ball.  Have the stamina to sprint the distance of the field.  Dodge your way through the traffic of people trying to bring you down.  Score the game winning touchdown for your team.

When it is over, remember to take the time to celebrate.

The lions-share of employees here at Mercury New Media are software developers, or are at heart anyway, and as such embrace our “inner geek” on a daily basis. We are all gamers of one type or another so the notion of game Achievements is second nature. Most all games seem to have some notion of “Badges” or “Achievements” now of one type or another, whether PC, console or mobile device. The idea of an Achievement, for you non-gamers, is usually an in game award of some type for performing a difficult task. Typically, there is a public forum where people can view other people’s achievements and brag about their own. Facebook games usually have achievements posted to the community.

At Mercury New Media we develop software using a development program made by Microsoft called Visual Studio. Recently, one of our team members discovered that there is a plug-in for Visual Studio which gives out Achievements when certain coding tasks are achieved. How cool is that? Of course we developers immediately started attempting to earn badges and found it to be a fun challenge.

The plugin was created by Microsoft and runs in the background as you write code. Each time you compile, the plugin examines your code and determines if you have done anything “worthy” of unlocking a badge. However, “worthy” might not be a good description since you have to go out of your way and write some fairly horrible code to unlock some of the funnier badges. Once you have installed the plugin, you can sign into channel9.msdn.com and view your awards. 

It’s interesting how much you have to deviate from standard coding practices to earn some of the awards. There are several awards that might actually make a developer new to the profession notice bad habits. Or, after earning an achievement realize “I don’t ever want to code like that again”. The pursuit of other badges help to promote features of Visual Studio that some developers might not know exist. There are also a series of badges designed to introduce developers to new technologies such as Windows Azure and Windows Phone 8.

Here are a few examples of my awards and potential lessons learned:

Interrupting Cow

Lesson Learned:
I needed to re-factor

Scroll Bar Wizard

Lesson Learned:
300 characters? Sheesh! But, makes you mindful of code readability.

Using Just What I Need

Lesson Learned:
Get in the habit of removing unused code.

Of course we don’t spend much time in the pursuit of these but it is fun to see one pop up every now and then. You think “cool, I just got an achievement” usually followed by “uh-oh, what the heck did I just do to get that”?

Content Strategy is to User Experience as Gravy is to Mashed Potatoes. Sure, I can eat my potatoes without gravy, but the experience for my taste buds is so much better with that delicious sauce and the cool little puddle the spoon leaves on top! The same goes with the content you show on your site. No matter your target demographic, no matter your aesthetic, the content you serve up to your visitors needs to be consumed in a manner that is true to your brand identity as well as useful and insightful.

You’d need two hands to count on your fingers how many years I’ve been designing websites and planning out user experiences and interactions, and I can tell you that good content is pleasing and rewarding to the user because of the expedited time it takes to either: a) find what they are looking for, or b) be educated on something new and useful to them because the content and strategy is on-point. Which helps me create cool stuff that enhances the experience for your users by melding with necessary features like navigation, social media, and brand messaging. Without solid content, you aren’t giving your visitors the best experience and making it more difficult for guys like me to deliver an outstanding and jaw-dropping design with impressive features that help your users.

As useful as an ashtray on a motor bike.

Useful as an ashtray on a motorbike

Your visitors should find value in your website and be able to use it with ease. A website without a solid strategy for the content and good quality content to boot isn’t very useful. So as the headline indicates, a website without good content is “as useful as an ashtray on a motor bike”. And on the flip-side of the user, as a UX/Web Designer I see it as inherently impossible to create a great user experience for content that has either a bad/incomplete plan or no plan at all. So how do you fix that? Glad you asked. First let me explain what Content Strategy is all about.

What is Content Strategy?

You may be reading this and think “I already have a content strategy”, and you very well might, if you do, I’m not talking to you. If you think you have one but what you are reading here is news to you, then you may not have a complete strategy and you are who I’m talking to.

It takes more than a board meeting where you take down everyone’s ideas and in turn give an idea cornucopia to your web designer with no real direction other than “please add this”. A wonderful content strategist by the name of Kristina Halvorson defines it as “plans for the creation, delivery, and governance of useful, usable content”. That pretty much puts it in a nut shell but you need to know more right? Here’s the 411:

  • Core Strategy

    Your core strategy is the key to your plan and explains how your content will help meet important goals and milestones for your business. The core strategy should describe how your content will benefit your customers, site visitors, and potential new leads.

  • Substance

    Details what is necessary to correctly and successfully implement the ideologies of your Core Strategy and include things like messaging architecture, target demographic(s), and personality of the text.

  • Structure

    Identifies the hierarchy, organization, and accessibility of your content. Information Architecture is a major part of this as well as the quality of the content itself –the words and accompanying imagery. Other than developing the Core Strategy, this is the main course of your meal. A great deal of time and effort should be spent here.

  • Workflow

    Focuses on how you and your team will manage the content and how often it’s done. This also addresses researching, choosing, and using the tools to do so.

  • Governance

    All the rules, standards, and gotchas for properly working within your Core Strategy.

By using the steps above, you can develop a strategy that is successful and allows me to design a wonderful user experience. That’s a win, but how does the content work with the experience exactly?

How is Content Strategy tied to User Experience?

Take a look at the graphic below (credit to Richard Ingram).

Content Strategy Questions

Below, I’ve extracted some questions and provided highlights on how/why these are some of the same questions I need the answer to as a designer.

What are we trying to achieve here?

This is important. This can mean the difference between a form interaction and a simple message-branded slide show to give the user what they need.

What style, tone, and voice am I going after?

This will directly impact the choices I make for images, fonts, color, and the proportion of elements.

What are our competitors doing?

Do I need to create something in-line with your competitors stuff because your users expect it, or do I need to create something new and different that really stands out? I get those answers from the answer to the above question.

How can we help our readers find it?

Duh! This is one of the most important parts of my job! I have to design and plan an experience that makes it just as easy to find information as it is to consume it.

So, what have we learned?

Content strategy makes everyone’s life easier. You, me, and most important, your customers. When they visit your site with your boss-level content and a primo design, their experience will be top-notch and make them happy.

Happy Users!

So go create yourself a new content strategy, call up Mercury and let’s create and launch something together that puts your cool new vision on display.