How guiding principles can improve a content strategy

Posted on January 16, 2017 by - Governance & Workflow, Strategy

A presentation slide that says Putting users at the heart of everything we do

Photo by the UK’s Government Digital Service

As a content strategist, I often ask two questions: “What are we trying to achieve?” and “Who are the users?” The answers serve as a foundation for almost everything that comes next—from conducting research to designing and implementing a strategy.

But I’ve found that a third question is equally valuable: “Can we build and maintain our solutions in an efficient and effective way?”

If the answer is no, then the solution needs to be reconsidered. Here are some examples:

  • Perhaps the solution would solve a short-term problem for one business unit while creating a fragmented digital ecosystem that could confuse users. Are there better alternatives?
  • Or perhaps the solution would solve a problem for users while generating value for the organization as a whole, but the solution would incur an unacceptable amount of technical debt or UX debt. Eventually, that debt will need to be repaid. Is the organization willing to do so?
  • Or maybe the project makes significant assumptions about what users need without building in time to validate those assumptions or correct course if necessary. Is that level of risk acceptable?

I think each organization must decide for itself how to define efficient and effective. It’s fair to expect that corporations, small businesses, nonprofits, associations, government agencies, and social enterprises will all have different human and financial resources, missions, policies, operating models, and cultures. Best practices are good to consider, but they don’t always make sense in different contexts. Meanwhile, employees and leadership teams often have conflicting expectations about what is feasible and desirable, especially as the pace of digital change accelerates.

To address these issues out in the open, I’ve started developing guiding principles as part of my content strategy process. At IREX, we’ve built our guiding principles into our digital content strategy. As a result, it’s easier to let our principles guide us each time we discuss objectives and users.

Guiding principles plus objectives plus priority user groups

What are guiding principles?

Guiding principles are also known as design values and design principles. Here are two explanations that I like:

When designing products, design values help guide an organization or team to make appropriate decisions, whether it’s filtering opportunities, prioritizing features, or ultimately defining success. . . . Use this at the beginning of a project when you need a “north star” to guide everyone toward a favorable outcome.
“Design Values,” from Boucoup’s Open Design Kit

Design principles are concise, specific guidelines for generating and evaluating ideas and artifacts. Good design principles serve as shared reference points in conversations about the design, development, and deployment of a product. We use principles to generate and categorize ideas, but most importantly, we use them to put aside exciting proposals that are probably distractions from more important goals.
From 18F’s Design Principles Guide

Guiding principles should reflect an organization’s constraints to help teams make realistic decisions. But guiding principles should also reflect the organization’s aspirations. They should push everyone to work in a more forward-looking way.

An example of guiding principles

Here are the guiding principles that we developed as part of IREX’s digital content strategy:

1. Begin with user needs

Learn about users, their goals, their needs, their pain points. Identify assumptions about users. Test the assumptions. Share what we learn. Repeat.

2. Select projects that support priorities

What digital projects are the best strategic fit? What objectives do the projects serve? How do the projects help priority audiences?

3. Design with data

Whenever possible, use data about users and the organization to make design decisions.

4. Keep it simple

Learn about underlying problems and systems, especially when they’re complex. Design solutions that are as simple as possible. Avoid custom code. Revisit features that are underperforming.

5. Build through iteration

Start small. Build prototypes and minimum viable products, test them with actual users, and refine them based on feedback.

6. Build for reuse

Think modular. Don’t reinvent the wheel. Create libraries of templates, design patterns, and code. Make it easy for other people to reuse components in a well-governed way.

7. Default to open

Consider open-source technologies at every step. Make our process transparent and collaborative whenever possible. Create multidisciplinary teams. Look for opportunities to share within and beyond the organization.

8. Create integrated services

User experience extends beyond a single website, social media account, publication, event, or other touch point. Map the experience piece by piece, and invite teams to unify their efforts.

9. Educate and empower

Create opportunities for teams to share and learn. Promote best practices. Help teams to help themselves. Give them a reason to want to collaborate.

We included these guiding principles in our digital service manual. They shaped the digital strategy, digital roadmap, and digital guidelines that we developed.

Now when teams raise the possibility of creating new websites, social media accounts, or other digital properties, we sit down together to consider the objectives, the users, and our guiding principles before making a decision.

This increases the chances that we can build the right thing in an effective way. It also helps us think through issues with teams rather than making a decision that might otherwise appear arbitrary. Because we’ve documented our guiding principles, we can have better conversations about the best practices that make sense for our organization, the resources at our disposal, the long-term implications of decisions, and the situations that require exceptions.

Advice for creating guiding principles

I recommend reviewing other organizations’ guiding principles and then developing your own list in collaboration with a representative group of employees. A single person or team usually can’t impose a set of principles upon an entire organization. Principles need to be accepted by the people that they affect, and that calls for including employees in the design process.

To browse other organizations’ guiding principles, visit Design Principles FTW, a repository of nearly 100 sets of design principles from a range of industries.

At IREX, we found the following sets of principles to be particularly helpful, given our organization’s industry and operating model:

My team drafted a set of guiding principles and shared the list with other teams for input. We beta tested the principles during routine projects and consultations, then revised them based on feedback and our own observations. The guiding principles that emerged from the process have been well received across the organization, and they’ve helped us have more productive conversations about digital products and services.

Here are three other ways to create guiding principles:

A final note: In a complex organization, a single set of principles may not work in every situation. It could be helpful to develop guiding principles at various levels—by geographic region or by type of product or service, for example. An enterprise digital content strategy could include guiding principles that apply to an organization’s digital projects in general while leaving open the possibility that teams could tailor the principles to meet their individual needs.

The point would be to promote helpful consistency rather than to impose rigid uniformity. However, if you begin to see dramatic differences in teams’ lists of principles, it may be a sign that the overall principles do not reflect the organizations’ needs or that teams are working at cross-purposes. In those cases, organizations could revise their guiding principles to allow for greater flexibility or to establish more consistency.

Either way, guiding principles should not be an end unto themselves. Rather, they work best as a tool for reaching a shared understanding of how to work together.

Josh TongJosh Tong is a content strategist in Washington, DC. He helps colleagues create powerful content through research, strategy, and implementation.

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