The content canvas
While working at Atlassian I devised the content canvas. It is a great tool that provides a completely flexible framework to sense and quality check content on a range of scales from a microcopy to a new site. I hope it might be something that you find useful and would love to hear your stories of using it.
This blog is about the content canvas but it is also about how to promote the value of content strategy in a naive environment.
Why we need a content canvas
As content strategists, our work can sometimes be veiled in a cloak of mystery. We are often dealing with esoteric concepts and challenges that need to be untangled over a period of weeks or even months.
So what does this mean when we attend stand up every morning or when we need to demonstrate how our work impacts a burndown chart? How can we ensure our work makes sense in a day to day context for a broader team? This is so important because we can’t succeed unless we achieve the understanding and support of our teams.
As content strategists, we need to create an environment where the needs of business and users are both being met by excellent and contextually appropriate content ecosystems.
It is increasingly apparent to me that content strategists need to find ways to make our work more concrete and more understandable. I am not advocating for dumbing down what we do, or removing the nuance or subtlety of our work, instead I am advocating for making our work more visible, more agile and more accessible.
The content canvas is a tool to help you do just that. It allows you to render down a bunch of evidence, experience and strategic thinking and create a framework that can be applied over and over again in a really flexible way. It allows us to maintain a healthy 30:70 ratio of explaining what we do, to actually doing what we do.
The origins of the Canvas - evolution
The content canvas is a bit of a mut :) It draws from a broad range of influences including the following:
Lean startup canvas
The Atlassian experience canvas
The core model
And while I was consciously inspired by the above, I think I was probably unconsciously inspired by many other approaches and philosophies from a range of disciplines.
Why does the content canvas work?
The content canvas lets us take a complex task and break it down into understandable and manageable chunks. And in that way it feels like an analogy for content strategy itself. Because content strategy is all about taking the complicated and murky and turning it into a clear plan of attack resulting in crisp, measurable and delightful content ecosystems. Content ecosystems that achieve our business goals.
Why does the content canvas not work?
Because the content canvas is so flexible it can feel a little slippery to some users who may be looking for more rigid rules. It can also be hard for some users to realise that the canvas can be applied on a take it or leave it basis. It can also feel like a lot of work without too many results especially when applied to a single page change or one small piece of microcopy. It may also be more appealing for content creators and strategist who are starting their journey rather than those with lots and lots of experience under their belts.
Using the content canvas
The content canvas is not prescriptive. By that I mean it is a framework you can use any way you want. Think about it like a piece of string. You can use string, to tie a package, make jewellery, hang a painting or tie two cans together to communicate.
Similarly, you can use the content canvas in a whole bunch of different ways. Use the content canvas the help you refine and plan your content - or use it however you want!
Components of the content canvas
So let’s get into the nitty gritty of the content canvas by breaking down the components.
Firstly - we have the hypothesis - a core tenant of design theory and strategy. What are we trying to achieve and why? What bar are we trying to raise or lower? It may take a little while to get the hang of writing these, but soon you will find it super easy.
What is the user trying to do?
What is the user goal?
What will the user know when they finish?
There are a raft of ways you can gather this from NPS, user research (specifically observation), analytics (page, search and tracking), user generated feedback and other surveying.
Who is the user?
Describe your target user
Use personas, archetypes or roles - whatever works in your organisation
Think about users motivations rather than the demographic
What stage are they at in their user journey?
Find this out from marketing segmentation and analytics, user research, personas and other surveying.
What is the key business goal or driver for this page?
Why is it important to the business that users perform this task?
How does this task align to the overarching business strategy?
How does this task align to product strategy?
How does this page contribute to the bottom line?
Discover this through desktop analysis and stakeholder interviews. View the five year strategic plan for the business, product strategies, budgets and ask key stakeholders what their KPIs are.
How can users find this content? Think about your SEO and make it easy for users to find content and have confidence they are in the correct place.
Where does this content sit in the information architecture? Why?
Does it have the most appropriate title?
Does it have the right tags? Can it be understood in both isolation and in context?
Make decisions based on evidence and experience of the information seeking behaviour of your users.
Inspired by Core Model, what are the ‘in’ and ‘out’ pathways for content? What pathways do users take to come to this bit of content and where do they go next? There may be one or many possible paths. For example an in-path may be via google, a product link or a marketing email trigger. An out-path may be to solve their problem in a product, view a documentation page via browse or another google search.
What content components are required?
Does it need illustrations?
Does it need screenshots?
Does it need a diagram?
What page layout does it need?
You can make these decisions in conjunction with visual designers or user experience designers.
How will users and key stakeholders know that this content has been created or updated? Promotion channels can include:
In product discovery
In product notification
Questions of content review are very important for example when does this page (for example a tutorial) need to be updated or deleted and when does the page expire? It is important to consider this at the time of content planning. Thinking about this helps articulate content value and hence resourcing allocation.
How do you know that you have achieved what you set out to?
How will you test its effectiveness?
Which stakeholders needs to be consulted on this content?
What analytics or web tools will be used to evaluate?
And how often does that need to happen?
Mixing it up
Of course you don’t need to fill out the whole content canvas or fill it out in a particular order. You might just fill out the following boxes if you want to take a strong user approach ...
... or your could fill out only the following boxes for a piece of microcopy.
How to collaborate with the content canvas
Another way the content canvas is flexible is the way in which you fill it out. You could take one or a combination of the following approaches - plus many more not listed here:
Print out a PDF and use a pen to fill in a bit over time
Share it with a colleague on a screen to start a conversation without filling in any of it.
Write it up on a whiteboard in a group.
Project it into a wall and use post-its to fill it in with a group. This is my favourite method.
The content canvas is a great tool to allow you to focus on strategy - while also creating concrete meaning for your users, stakeholders and content creators. I encourage you to use all and every tactic in your book - including the content canvas to increase the strategic capacity of your team and clients.
I’d love to hear how you go :)