Content That Works on the Web (1,084 words)
by Michelle Cameron
Have you tried to buy something lately on the Web? Sometimes it works—you find what you need right away, you can immediately order it, and there is sufficient feedback to let you know that your transaction went through correctly. Frequently, however, it doesn't work—the questions you would ask about the merchandise go unanswered, or worse yet, you can't even find what you want.
Maybe you are looking for specific information about a corporation. If you're lucky, it's where you would expect it to be, it is presented in a way that is easily understood, and you can take what you need and go on with your work. More often, the content recreates a company's marketing collateral, and doesn't answer the really meaningful questions you might have. Or the information might be there, but buried so deep that it is all but impossible to find.
The latter scenarios can be remedied by proper content analysis and a design approach that addresses users' concerns. Content analysis involves sifting through and prioritizing source material. When the Web was young, content analysis mainly meant organizing paper-based documents for online presentation—like taking paper catalog pages and simply putting them up on the Web. But as Web systems grow more sophisticated, so do the applications they are designed to support.
Today's intelligent Web applications incorporate a wide range of functions. Extranets, for example, can deliver real-time price quotes to purchasing departments, helping them make informed decisions on the spot. Commercial Web sites can suggest new CDs to consumers, let them sample the music online before they buy, then tie the front-end ordering process to back-end fulfillment, letting a service representative track the entire transaction.
The dynamic content of Web applications now includes higher levels of information, from live news feeds delivered via streaming video to company training modules in Java applets. This shift from data to knowledge should have a profound impact on businesses everywhere.
Take, for instance, the Web site for Novartis, a leading life sciences company. Novartis views its Medical Education (MedEd) Web site (www.meded.pharma.us.novartis.com) as a critical platform for nurturing long-term relationships with its customers: medical and allied health students and professionals. Novartis already had a MedEd Web site three years ago. However, the company recognized last year that this site no longer served the appropriate corporate image, and that the site's content needed reorganization. My company, Logical Design Solutions (LDS), designed a new site for Novartis. We tried to make the pages more colorful, the text and graphics better balanced.
In executing this design, LDS paid as much attention to usability as to aesthetics. In fact, as a proponent of user-centered Web design, LDS turns to focus groups or other survey methods to assess the needs and preferences of users. For the Novartis MedEd Web site, reviewing focus group results helped LDS determine how best to organize and present the site's content. The result is a site where visitors can navigate easily and quickly locate information on the educational products offered by Novartis.
In light of growing demand for dynamic, content-rich Web applications, designers should keep in mind that content analysis requires considerable time investment. Those who are serious about developing intelligent, dynamic applications must approach content analysis from a new perspective, taking into account the following considerations.
Scope Out Content
When starting a new Web application, act quickly to assess the scope of the development effort ahead of you. Speed is critical, as issues that are easily addressed at this early stage can become nonnegotiable later. Resolve differences in scope ambitions immediately, before further work takes place on the project.
Accurately scoping the project at the outset and documenting agreed-to parameters at this early stage will help prevent misunderstandings later on. For example, one LDS client scaled back its project ambitions when it realized the initial proposal would require more resources and time than it was able to invest. The scaled-back initial phase ultimately resulted in a more realistic, attainable project.
Be Proactive But Realistic
It is vitally important that you identify and initiate contact with the content "owners" within your organization. You will want to obtain the raw materials that you will use to analyze and develop the content. In addition, you will need to interview the owners to get content that does not yet exist on paper. This is especially true for intelligent, complex Web applications, where a part of the application may encompass information and workflow elements from many parts of the organization.
But throughout this phase, keep reminding yourself of the agreed-upon scope of the project. You need to strike the appropriate balance between tapping into enthusiasm to further the project and tempering it to keep the project within realistic boundaries.
Keep in mind your ultimate customer—the Web site user or shopper. When the project is complete, the application will not be deemed a success if it doesn't meet the needs and satisfy the preferences of the intended users. Personalizing content through dynamic assembly, which allows each user to view only the data that is relevant to him or her, is one possibility.
Scheduling content reviews ahead of time, and setting a clear approval path that content owners should subscribe to can save you a lot of grief. Typically, your draft content will be reviewed by at least one subject matter expert and possibly your company's attorneys. Comments often differ in nuance or contradict one another. Being able to resolve differences is critical at this stage.
No matter how clear you are about deadlines, content owners have other obligations that may force them to respond late. You need to be as flexible as possible, but also very clear when a missed deadline will mean a missed deliverable date. You can generate a lot of good will simply by giving your content owners sufficient time in which to conduct their reviews.
As Web applications grow in complexity, so do the requirements for the content that supports them. Content analysis needs to begin early, to be undertaken with a true understanding of the final project goals and to remain simultaneously flexible and realistic.
By forging a solid, ongoing partnership with content owners and doing your part in maintaining it, you can avoid many of the pitfalls that often occur during content analysis and development.
Michelle Cameron is a creative producer, Web editor and content analyst at Logical Design Solutions, specializing in the optimization of print materials for the online medium. She can be reached at (973) 971-0100 x114.