Thursday, December 23, 2010
Content Strategy: What my 2 year old knows about Relationships and Classification
I have a two year old who is learning his colors. Today he identified a yellow block, a red block and then he pointed to a light blue block and said, “What’s that called?”
Later today, I had lunch with Dan Brown, the author of Communicating Design, and a well-known Information Architect. I related this story to him as we spoke about how children learn to classify information (His son is four and a half). Our minds are primed to group and organize things, to find relationships that will help us make connections and generalizations.
My son knows dark blue and blue, but he didn’t have a name for light blue. Because he’s learning to speak, he asked the name of the color. How often do we, as adults, ask for labels for things? Rarely—as we think we already have them. What we don’t realize is that our labels may not be the same as everyone else’s.
Ginny Redish says, “We all speak a different language. It’s amazing that we communicate at all.” Classification is an unbelievably tricky part of communication, particularly in digital communications, where information and content already has an enforced organization because of the delivery vehicle (Think 140 characters on Twitter vs. as long as I want blog post).
We all try to enforce our own order on things—our own way of seeing the world. Finding the right relationships that exist within and outside of information is key to helping our users find the content they need.
We see this in healthcare all the time. How many times have you heard the term “spectrum disorder”? Cancer is 192 diseases the scientific community has lumped together as cancer. Multiple sclerosis is another disease where doctors give many different presentations the same diagnosis of MS. In 100-200 years from now, science will know more--enough to separate out the different diseases. Lumping them together now is convenient. But it doesn’t make treatment accurate.
Content strategy—relationship therapy
As content strategists, our job is to find the right content to express the relationships between things. Here are some methods we should use to do that:
1. Identifying patterns in content and expressing it in different ways.
For example—when you create a “Drink Milk” campaign, you may have one section of a website that is just for children. Their content has games, quizzes and video. For their parents, the content present facts, tips for getting kids to drink milk and enjoy it; for healthcare providers, content that addresses how to evaluate kids for calcium deficiencies. Same theme, but different types and presentations of content.
2. Consolidation of content.
Very often content is messy and all over the place. For example—when you tell patients what to expect during a treatment process that lasts over a period of time, you may break that up into pages. But some patients may want to read about it from beginning to end. How about creating a PDF that consolidates all that information? Or one Web page with multiple anchor tags? Same information, just presented in one convenient place.
3. Precise tagging.
I’m not going to wax all Semantic on you now. But I do think that content strategists need to think long and hard about labels. Again, like I said about my son, using labels is difficult because not everyone thinks about things the same way. But to most people, if it’s on two orange legs, has webbed feet, with greenish feathers and quacks, it’s a duck. It may be a certain species of duck, but it’s still a duck.
Recently I was looking for art, and I wanted something in the purple family. The website had a "select by color" option, and yet as I looked through it, I realized certain purple pieces of art I had already viewed were missing. Two conclusions: Content lacked tagging and I no longer trusted their database sort. I don’t think I need to say this, but it’s an example of what not to do.
4. Use timelines, processes and steps.
People like to break things down. If you’re planning to send a kid to college, you want information for the time period you’re in. I have a two year old. Clearly it’s not imminent. When I go to College Answer though, the main sections go in order of process: Preparing, Selecting, Applying, Paying, Deciding, Financing. Use timelines and steps to get people to content they need and want.
It's my last blog post of 2010. It's been a great year and I appreciate your warm support.
Happy Holidays and Happy New Year!