Confab Higher Ed Workshop
Welcome to “Future-ready: Structuring content so it’s built to last” at Confab Higher Ed! This page includes instructions, discussion questions, and links for all the activities we’ll do today.
You can also download the presentation slides (PDF)
Your situation: Oberlin College
Psst! This is not a real scenario (as far as we know!)—it’s a realistic fabrication for workshop purposes only. But it is similar to plenty of real higher-ed challenges we’ve seen!
Oberlin College recently redesigned its homepage to be responsive, but most of the site is still desktop-centric—and the college has committed to changing that before the next recruitment cycle begins next fall.
You’re the content strategist leading the charge for the Arts & Sciences site, which is everything at Oberlin that’s not the music conservatory. This site hasn’t been updated in several years, and not only is it nearly impossible on mobile, but users also report that they struggle to find information and understand how the pieces fit together.
Today, your focus is on figuring out the best way to organize and write content about Oberlin’s academics: the majors and minors it offers, the departments that make up the College of Arts & Sciences, the courses offered, and the faculty who teach there.
User research and stakeholder interviews have led your team to agree on the following goals for this content:
- Make it easier for prospective students to research Oberlin’s offerings and compare them to other schools’ majors and programs.
- Better showcase Oberlin’s personalized and eclectic academic offerings as a selling point for prospective students. For example, Oberlin offers Individual Majors, where students build their own interdisciplinary degree programs, and an Experimental College, where students can earn credit for unusual classes.
- Improve current students’ ability to understand their program requirements and course options, and stay on track for graduation.
- Raise the profile of Oberlin’s renowned faculty and staff.
Activity 1: Highlight the nouns!
Go through the content brief provided (print-out) and underline or highlight all the nouns you see. For example, in the first sentence, you’d highlight majors, minors, and departments. This is the first draft of your content types.
Once you’re done, discuss what you found with your team:
- Which of these items seem core to Oberlin and its goals?
- Which of these items can you visualize? Describe them to your tablemates. Are any of the nouns less clearly defined than the others?
- What student or prospect questions would you expect each content type to find? You don’t have to have a perfect answer yet, but talk about it
With your team, decide on which content types are core to the experience, and write each one on an individual sticky note.
Activity 2: Define the content system
Now that you have a list of content types, it’s time to define how they’re related to one another. With your table, talk through each content type, one by one, and ask:
- Which other connect types does this item connect to, conceptually? For example, you might note that courses are taught by faculty. That’s a relationship.
- Which connections between content might be most helpful for users (it’s okay to make some assumptions here, since we can’t do real user research)?
- Which connections would be most likely to help Oberlin achieve its goals?
As you model out this system of content, start moving your sticky notes around and drawing lines between connected items. Discuss:
- Which content type or types are most central to Oberlin’s content universe?
- How might thinking about these as primary or core types of content impact how you prioritize information or design navigation?
When you’re done, you should have one interconnected system of content, showing which items are related to one another.
Activity 3: Prioritizing and chunking content
Now that we’ve defined the big picture, let’s look at an individual content type and define what makes it whole. For this activity, you’ll look at one content type:
- A Groups: Your content type is departments, such as Biology, Psychology, or Creative Writing.
- B groups: Your content type is courses. Take a look at the course catalog to see course descriptions. Make sure you look at a few—what do they have in common? What’s different about each? Also look at the navigation on the left—which categories do you see there (e.g., Cultural Diversity), and should those be reflected in the content model? How?
Once you’ve looked at your content type, write down each content chunk or facet it needs to have on a separate sticky. Keep in mind: you don’t have to recreate what you see on the example content! In fact, you’ll want to consider:
- How could this content better be designed to display on mobile? Does that require new chunking?
- Are there areas where existing content is too long and wordy, and a shorter chunk would be useful?
- Are there key user questions you’ve identified that this content doesn’t answer? What would answer them?
- How well does this content meet Oberlin’s goals as is? What changes to its structure might help?
Once you have all those content chunks and facets mapped out, prioritize them with your team, from most to least important.
Finally, take your content model and transfer it to scratch paper. Write a short description/guideline for each chunk, including:
- Approximate length
- Any data requirements (e.g., “enter a date MM/DD/YYYY”)
- Important editorial notes, such as key messaging, voice, or CTA
Activity 4: Writing structured content
For our final activity, we’re going to put our models to the test by trading with other groups! If you were a Group A, trade your content model with a Group B so that you’re writing about a content type that you did not model.
Once you’ve traded, work with a partner from your team to write copy to match the content model provided (use the links in activity 3 to pick a piece of sample content to rewrite).
When you’re finished, we’ll share and get feedback: Where did writers do things differently than intended? Why? What was hard about writing this way?
- Content Everywhere: My book about building structured, mobile-ready content
- “Content Modelling: A Master Skill” by Rachel Lovinger
- “Object-Oriented UX,” a more product-centric take on structuring content, from Sophia Voychehovski
- Modeling Structured Content, workshop slides from Mike Atherton
- Content Modeling Series, a set of article from Cleve Gibbon
- “Responsive Design Won’t Fix Your Content Problem” by Karen McGrane
- “The Core Model: Designing Inside Out for Better Results” by Ida Aalen
- “Training the CMS” by Eileen Webb