Situational Impacts to Content Quality and Best Practices for Improvement

Hand with stampIn a previous article, we introduced a 10,000 foot view of nine factors used to evaluate the quality of content. If you’ve been in a content creation role for more than a day, you already know it’s hard to reach a consensus on what high-quality content is. To make it even more challenging, these standard factors, combine with situational impacts, make it nearly impossible to create content that affects the five senses the same way for each person.

Even if you produce content that regularly passes your organizational standards as clear, accurate, findable, usable, relevant, consistent, complete, organized, and current, someone’s going to think it isn’t. Increasingly, professional communicators are evaluated on content quality by managers, peers, and customers (it’s no longer good enough to just push a shippable documentation set out the door). The perception of quality matters to your job security and professional reputation, as well as how you manage company reputation risk, improve customer experience, and increase businesses’ return on investment (ROI). But how can you assess and rank perception?

We can use these nine factors to create high-quality content, but we need to understand the situational impacts that affect the evaluation of quality (and make it hard to measure).  Let’s identify the most common situational impacts to content quality. That lays the foundation for reviewing some best practices—tools that can minimize complexity and guide our efforts to develop, publish, distribute, and revise better content for our target audiences, including employees, bosses, customers, and potential customers.

Subjectivity – You Can Have it in Any Color…

What is good writing? What is good design? People agree on certain elements; for example, if a piece of content contains typos or sentences that don’t follow the expected construction for a specific language, it’s easy to mark its quality as lower because it’s frustrating and not usable. But we all have our own preferences and biases. Some people enjoy reading material that is less formal and contains cultural phrases or slang, but others prefer a more traditional structure to the writing. And sometimes the context and environment matter (more on that in a section below). If you are reading work-related materials, you’ll likely want a straightforward, no nonsense approach. If reading for pleasure, you might be more open to different styles and approaches.

Design is also subjective. Many people like the sleek and clean designs and color palette we expect in Apple products, but others might find it dull and prefer more variety. Such preferences can be attributed to simple as personality type (more reserved vs. highly creative).

Best Practice: Ask them what they want

Work directly with your audiences to determine how their subjectivity and expectations can be incorporated into your content initiatives in a way that improves quality. Plan a focus group scenario where you provide real audience members with actual examples of your content to review, including previous work and prototypes for new designs. It’s much easier to provide feedback on something real rather than on concepts and ideas. You can also create buyer personas based on actual customer data, industry trends, and business initiatives to help focus content development efforts in areas that will make a positive impact.

Best Practice: Apply expert judgment to fulfill requests appropriately

After you’ve polled your audiences to determine what they want, use your expert judgment to apply their feedback into the content. Just because someone says they want a predominantly red background for their web training content doesn’t mean it’s a good solution (red often has negative connotations and is hard to stare at for long periods of time.) Track what customers said they wanted and what you’ve implemented. Then follow up on how customers react to the changes.

Legacy Content – Too Many Cooks in the Kitchen

It’s a rare, perhaps even non-existent company that employs one writer creating all content overall for a business. Over time, a lot of people will create content for your organization. And where lots of people create, revise, and distribute content, you’ll find just as many versions, writing styles, and design preferences. For example, some will write using the Oxford comma and list headings over the top of the paragraphs they introduce. Others omit the last comma and list headings to the left. These variations may not seem to matter, but they impose additional cognitive load for audiences when they’ve come to expect their materials to look, feel, and operate a certain way. And that impacts their perception of quality.

Best Practice: Perform a content audit

Content audits can come in many flavors and levels of detail. Ultimately they all do the same thing: assessing all the content in all its forms and channels, and prioritizing content for revision based on the order of importance to the customer experience and business ROI. You can also scour the internet to see if there is any inaccurate or bad content out there that ranks ahead of your content in a search. Use the results to develop a list of new content to create.

Best Practice: Create a standards and style guide

If you don’t already have one (or it needs a 21st century makeover to meet changing needs of global marketplaces and highly searchable content), create a style guide that includes all writing style and design elements. Even better, include file naming structure, image library locations, terminology lists, and other related information.

Cultural Expectations – Lost in Translation

Our preferences and expectations for the look and feel of content are also grounded in the cultural norms we absorb as we grow up. Those idioms, catch phrases, and buzzwords that have become second nature to us can cause an unintentional problem for content strategists and translation experts when localizing source content to reach a global marketplace. Not just the words, but also the underlying meaning you’re trying to convey to your audience, can be ruined if you fail to apply research and planning before content development begins.

At a conference for communicators and marketers, I attended a session on localization. An audience shared a particularly striking example of misunderstanding arising from the loss of original meaning in target cultures. Commonly the word “cakewalk” in the U.S. refers to a straightforward task you can complete with ease. However, the original meaning derived when plantation owners had slaves perform dances mimicking the attitude and movements of the owners themselves. Not exactly the message you’d want to convey to your audience. So even when you think your content is clever and clear, consumers from other cultures may deem it as lower quality if your choice of phrasing is offensive or confusing.

The business world is rife with examples of meaning going wrong during translating into other languages and cultures, such as Coca-Cola’s attempt to translate its company name into Chinese and ended up with the name “Bite the Wax Tadpole.” Not offensive or a serious problem, but the result hardly conveys a clear message.

Best practice – Create a terminology list

Creating content that is easy to translate and localize isn’t as simple as making it shorter. A terminology list is crucial to addressing cultural norms within your content. Content developers may not know which styles and types of language they should or shouldn’t use, so help them out with a list of acceptable terminology. You can include preferred elements you gather by speaking to customers, and add idioms and jargon to the “do not use” section. When you confirm the languages your content will be translated into, you can specify further detail based on each market’s needs.

Best practice – Audit your content and prioritize rework efforts

If you perform a content audit to determine what content you have available in what formats, and recognize that any part of it content currently breaks cultural expectations for your audiences, you may decide to revise every piece, but you’ll need to prioritize the work. Determine which areas of the content are causing the most errors and complaints, and which ones you can revise and republish quickly, and present these findings to management to get buy in for the effort.

Context – Don’t Throw in the Kitchen Sink

sink-dishesHigh content quality relies on the context in which it will be used. Clearly print content and screen-based content drive different modes of content creation. For example, you can only fit a certain amount of content onto a single printed page, but you have more real estate on a scrolling web page. However, just because you have the space doesn’t mean you should fill every pixel with verbiage. Context drives choice of channels, as well as approach and level of detail during content creation.

If you want to learn a three-step procedure for filling out a tax form, you’re going to be really irritated if forced to go through six modules of eLearning with a bunch of flashing animated objects that sing to you (odds are good that such learning that would irritate you and every other learner no matter the subject).

Not every project requires the same information at the same level of depth and detail in all situations. For example, a new sales employee would need to complete training on the brand message for the entire company, but an experienced employee might only access new content or periodic refreshers. The new employee would complete onboarding tasks in the classroom and on the job, but the experienced employee could use a mobile app to review flash cards during the long commute in on the train. Some of the same content might be included in each iteration, but the depth and use varies.

Finally, the context drives content creation from the perspective of how you will measure success. Will the user complete a task on their own? Do you need to collect the results of taking a multiple choice quiz? Will you monitor sales generated by marketing content? Do you plant to assess safety improvements?

Best Practice: Determine the best delivery approach

Determine best approach for delivery based on content needs. What does a user needs to do with information? Will they perform a task that requires step-by-step textual guidance or even audio narration? Do you want to convey compelling information to persuade them to try a product or contact the sales team? Does it need to be portable and easy to read on a cell phone outdoors or on a plane? The answers to such questions inform mode, channel, tone and voice.

Best Practice: Provide only the level of essential detail

Of course, you never want to omit information that is necessary for someone to understand the meaning of a concept or to complete the steps in a procedure. However, to create high-quality content, you need to include only the material that is essential to that one area of focus. Extraneous details confuse, distract and irritate many users. Often, you can provide links or references to related content so the user always has the previous or next information available if needed.

Current Skills – Working with the Team You Have

A final situational impact to content quality is the composition of your team. Some members may lack the necessary skills as writers to create clear and consistent messages or to use software tools in place to structure, design, and publish information. These team members often produce inaccurate information or present it in unclear, inconsistent ways.

Best Practice: Measure the outcomes and results of your content efforts

Team performance and development highlight the importance of measuring content creation and delivery efforts and results. If your audiences perceive your content negatively and you lose customers, you need to have supporting data to better assess your team’s performance. Are the problems related to invalid information? Causing regulatory concerns? Management will certainly want to know how your team’s lack of skills can create reputational risk or lost sales, and what can be done to mitigate them.

Best Practice: Present the business case for training and hiring

If you find that your team is producing poor quality content, use data and provide solutions for improving the situation, usually in the forms of training who you have or adding qualified staff. People can learn to be effective communicators, but if they come in lacking experience and never receive training, the quality of the content will never reach the level you envision. If training the current employees is enough, research to find available opportunities and associated costs. If new employees are needed, create a business case with the cost to hire new members, required skills and experience, and present it to management.

Bringing it All Together

The best practices listed for each situational impact can be applied to other areas of content development to ensure that it meets the expectations of audiences and conveys the right messages for companies. Consistent content that adapts to audience requests, omits mixed messages, and incorporates the right media for the purpose, helps support your company’s overall business objectives, such as increasing sales, developing loyal customers, and promoting social sharing across multiple platforms.

Additional Resources

What Factors Impact the Quality of Content?

The Value of Evaluating Content Quality

The Extraordinary Story Of Why A ‘Cakewalk’ Wasn’t Always Easy – NPR

Bite the Wax Tadpole? – Coca-Cola

Jill Parman

Jill is the owner of ForWord Consulting, LLC, which provides instructional design, technical communication, and business analysis services. She is a master of useless trivia, has a slight obsession with Pilot fine tip pens, and spends her free time chasing around a toddler and two dogs.

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