Empowering your whole content team during a responsive project

A 5 minute read written by Tracey March 7, 2016

Image of mug with different writing utensils.

Improving your content is a big part of going responsive - but you can only get there by engaging your team of content creators, and making sure they have the skills and support they need to succeed. Here’s why, and how.


A great user experience comes from a combination of three factors: interface design, visual design, and content. It’s like a three-legged stool - each factor is equally important, and the whole thing collapses if you remove any one leg.

At Yellow Pencil, a big part of our business is helping organizations go responsive with their website - and to meet the needs of every customer, no matter which platform he or she is using. Most companies come to us thinking they’re buying technology; that the formula for a successful responsive redesign and meeting customer needs looks something like this:

fancy design + magical code = super-fabulous user experience.

But really, they’re engaging us to transform how they work and think about these projects, because responsive projects aren’t just about design and code. The third leg is content, and it’s just as critical. We’re usually responsible for showing organizations that the formula for a successful redesign is a lot closer to this:

updated design + responsive code + useful, usable, user-focused content = super-fabulous user experience.

The thing is, while user-focused content is important for any successful responsive project, it doesn’t happen by accident. The only way you can get to content this great is by involving, educating, and empowering the team that creates it. Your team.

Investing in the team that will be creating your content is as important to a successful redesign as the design and code. In our opinion, it’s even more important - and here’s why.

Your content won’t magically improve itself

Old, bloated content in a shiny new design doesn’t make for a better experience - your users won’t be fooled by a slick new design if it’s still impossible to find what they need. If you really want your new site to provide a better experience and more effectively meet your users needs, improving your content is key.

Here’s an important principle to guide how you think about the web: Less (but better) content leads to a better website. For users, it’s easier to navigate, read, and find what they’re looking for, because there’s less to sort through. For your organization, it’s better because there’s less to maintain.

Responsive projects provide the perfect opportunity to pare down your content. In her new book, Going Responsive, Karen McGrane outlines the lessons she’s learned from interviewing organizations that have gone responsive successfully - and she says that a 75% reduction in content isn’t out of the question when it comes to an effective clean-up.

And once you’ve cut back your content to the stuff that really matters, the next step is to clean it up. Making sure the content you have left is better written and better structured makes it easier to users to read, scan, and find what they need.

However, your content won’t magically improve itself. To get to great content, you’ll need to start by setting your team up for success.

To create better content, your team needs the skills

Staying content-first during a project means recognizing that content is written by people: effective content clean-ups take author involvement and a team that knows what they’re doing.

I spend a lot of time talking to teams about the challenges they face in creating and maintaining great content. I usually hear that content authors are subject matter experts that know their area of organizational knowledge inside-out - HR, policy creation, customer service - but aren’t empowered to write user-friendly web content.

Creating and maintaining great content requires skills that most web authors in enterprise organizations don’t have. To clean up, pare down, and improve content, authors need skills in:

  • Understanding user needs: This goes without saying for UX folks, but I often find that this practice isn’t used by content creators. Knowledge of personas and understanding user needs is hugely valuable for web authors to determine what should be included on the site, and how it should be prioritized and structured.
  • Writing for the web: The skills required to write great web content are different from those required to write a policy brief or sales document.
  • Content prioritization: In a mobile context, authors need to be able to think about how content is prioritized when it’s reorganized to appear on a mobile screen (which can be much harder than it sounds).
  • Structured content: Content models create structured, intelligent content that can be reconfigured and adapted to different contexts. Structured content is critical for creating reusable content, but authors need an introduction to what content models are, why they matter, and how to write for them.
  • Analytics: Bonus points for this one - if content authors know how to use analytics and see what users are looking at and what they’re not, it can help in prioritizing the most valuable content (and identifying the not-so-valuable).

Above all, a responsive redesign can be the tipping point to make stakeholders see the value of offering less (but better) content. Introducing teams to UX design principles - defining user needs, understanding users as highly task-focused, F-shaped reading patterns on the web - leads to lightbulb moments in which people really start to understand why we’re ditching all this “meh” content, and how much we can enhance the user experience by improving the content that’s left.

Education and advocacy means a better chance of success

It might be tempting to take the less messy, “easy” approach to a redesign and involve as few people as possible, but teams become frustrated when they don’t understand what’s going on and feel they don’t have the tools or knowledge to succeed.

Involving teams early, advocating for responsive design, and empowering people with the skills they’ll need to be successful can completely change the tone of large-scale redesigns.

In my experience, these steps can make a huge difference in getting people aligned and excited about the possibilities for improvement:

  • Education on responsive design: For anyone outside the tech world, responsive design and its value aren’t always obvious. Hold presentations or lunch-and-learns illustrating case studies of some great responsive projects, why mobile is important (hint: lots of users access the internet primarily on mobile devices), and some really great before-and-after examples of improved content.
  • Giving teams a voice: Your team sees that your current website is broken, too. Stakeholder interviews or workshops can gather feedback from those who create content for your site. When you involve your whole team and give people a voice, you build trust and ensure everyone feels a sense of ownership over the project’s success.
  • Workshops on writing for the web and user-centered design: As I mentioned above, it’s important to equip your teams with the skills they’ll need for success: persona creation, defining user needs, content prioritization, and writing for the web.

To sum up, I’ll leave you with another quote from Going Responsive: “Responsive projects aren’t just about building a website. They’re about training your team. Implementing a new process. Educating the organization on new ways to solve problems.”

This is as true for content as it is for any other aspect of a responsive project.

If you want your responsive redesign to be successful, focus on people. The value provided by educating and empowering people and getting your whole team committed to the process is huge: I’ve witnessed projects go from a limp to a sprint (with amazing results), and all it took was getting content teams excited about the possibilities of a project - and then giving them the skills to make it happen.