Smashing Conference pair writing workshop
My workshop at Smashing Conference by Marc Thiele, used via CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Thank you for attending my full-day introduction to content strategy workshop. 

This page includes instructions, discussion questions, and links for all the activities we’ll do today, as well as links to further resources for each topic.

You can also download the Presentation deck (PDF).


We will use the Business Extra site throughout the day. Business Extra is a travel rewards program offered by American Airlines, British Airways, and Iberia for small and medium-sized businesses.

For today’s workshop, assume the following:

  • Business Extra wants to redesign its website to increase program signups and engagement.
  • They also know the site should be responsive—a large percentage of traffic is mobile, and many users try to sign up for the program from their phones, but don’t complete the process.
  • According to preliminary user research, prospective members say they’re confused about how the program works, and can’t tell whether it’s “worth it.” Users say they want to know that Business Extra is easy to use with their existing air miles program, and that it will give them real value.


Activity 1: Strategy mad libs

Mad libs are little books where you’d fill in the blanks with random nouns, verbs, and adjectives and end up with a ridiculous story (they look like this). Today, we’ll use that same idea—except that instead of a kooky story, you’ll work with your group to quickly develop a rough strategy statement for Business Extra. We’ll use this statement throughout the day.

In the real world, I use this activity all the time when I am trying to get groups of stakeholders to agree on a direction and make decisions on priorities.

  1. Spend a few minutes reading some main pages on the Business Extra website.
  2. With this information in mind, spend 5 minutes discussing the following questions as a team:
    • Which values are most important to Business Extra?
    • What do you think the company wants customers to think and feel when they encounter the Business Extra brand?
    • What do you think users most want from this brand? (In the real world, we’d research this!)
    • Is the website content currently communicating what it should be? Why or why not?
  3. Now, turn to your mad lib worksheet. Spend 15 minutes deciding how to best fill it out to meet the needs you’ve identified.

Further reading

Find more info and ideas for adapting this approach in my article on Content Mad Libs. You can also download a PDF of today’s mad lib worksheet.

Activity 2: Sticky-note analysis

Using the strategy and content principles your team drafted in activity 1, it’s time to start evaluating existing content and deciding whether it’s fit for purpose.

In this activity, each of you will have a chance to look at content individually, add your thoughts, and then discuss your feedback as a group. Make sure you let everyone on the team write down their thoughts!

  1. Spend 5–10 minutes reviewing each content page. Consider questions like:
    • How well does this content reflect what you decided your goals as an organization are?
    • Does anything feel out of place?
    • Is the information well organized and structured?
    • Does the tone of the content align with your principles?
  2. On each page, use one color of sticky note to write down anything you see that supports your strategy and seems helpful for your user. Place the sticky note next to that part of the page.
  3. Place a different-colored sticky note next to anything that doesn’t support your strategy or your user.
  4. Once you’ve collected all feedback, discuss what you found:
    • What trends emerged?
    • Are there areas where your team disagreed on what was working or not working? Why? Can you reach some kind of agreement about how to move forward?

Further reading

I talk more about this method in my article, Less Training, More Practice.

Activity 3: Content analysis

Now it’s time to look at content across the Business Extra site and see how well it reflects the strategy and messaging you’ve agreed on—as well as find inconsistencies, duplication, or other problems.

With your group, open this content audit template (Google Sheet). Go to the tab assigned to your table so you don’t get in the way of other groups.

  1. Start by reviewing the audit criteria (the headings in each spreadsheet column). This is what you’ll evaluate each page against.
  2. Discuss whether you want to add to or change the criteria based on what you found in the sticky note exercise. Are there problem areas you uncovered you want to make sure you audit for?
  3. Start auditing the content with your team, one page at a time. Spend about 5 minutes per page (it’s okay if you don’t finish all of the URLs).
  4. For each page you review, fill in the spreadsheet. Discuss how well the content works, evaluate it according to the criteria, and write notes about what you find.
  5. Once you’ve looked at a range of pages, consider how well the content works as a whole: is it in a logical order? Is some content duplicated? Is some important information hidden?

Further reading

Content audits come in all shapes and sizes. Learn more about how to take a deep dive into one with these resources:

Activity 4: Core model

In this exercise, you’ll work with a partner at your table to fill out the core model worksheet. The core model is a technique I’ve adapted from NetLife Research, a UX and design firm in Oslo (see the links below for some resources and reading from their team).

In the core model, you’re aiming to bring strategic thinking to an individual page, and break down what you need to reach user and business goals.

  1. For this activity, only complete page 1 of the worksheet.
  2. Pick one of the pages that you evaluated in your content audit to focus on. Make sure you pick a valuable page, not one you recommend deleting!
  3. Fill out the worksheet according to your best understanding of user and business goals. It’s okay to make some assumptions for this exercise, since we don’t have real users to ask today.
  4. Compare what you decide here with what you found in the audit. What are the main differences?

Further reading

Activity 5: Content prioritization

This activity continues the core model, moving to page 2 of the worksheet. For this activity, your goal is to simply decide which content is most important.

  1. First, review the business and user goals you listed on page 1. Bring those different goals together into a single purpose.
  2. Next, organize the content you listed on page 1 according to its priority, with the most important information at the top. Use your initial strategy as a guide if you get stuck.

Activity 6: Interface writing

Let’s practice writing interface content for a mobile onboarding process for Business Extra, using our draft strategy and content principles as our guide.

  1. Start by reviewing the current form. What might be making it hard to use?
  2. Consider whether you’d recommend a different prioritization or clustering of the questions asked, and how this might be more usable on mobile. How can you make this process feel more intuitive for a user? Spend a few minutes sketching out a mobile flow.
  3. Mark up the print-out of the current form with changes you’d make to the content. Make sure you consider:
    • Field labels
    • Headings
    • Buttons
    • Instructions

Further reading

Activity 7: Informational writing

For this activity, you’ll use the same page you evaluated using the core model. Now, you’ll take the content priorities you listed and start writing clear, usable, on-brand content.

  1. Work with your partner from the previous exercise. If you took the lead on UI writing, then let your partner take the lead on this exercise.
  2. Create a text document with your draft copy in it. Don’t worry if it’s rough—just get as far as you can.
  3. Compare your source content (the original page) with your core model, and determine whether any content can be reused or adapted.
  4. Start drafting your content, remembering to focus on readability: use simple sentences and clear headings.
  5. Don’t forget to consider voice and tone! After you’ve drafted some initial content, pull out the content principles from your mad lib, and evaluate your draft against them.
  6. Spend 5 minutes sharing drafts with the other pairs in your group. Discuss:
    • What else could you cut?
    • Is anything unclear?
    • How could it better reflect the voice you’re trying to achieve?

Further reading

For more on writing structured, informational content, see these sources:

That’s it!

Thank you for coming today! If you have additional questions or want to bring more content strategy training to your team, send me a note with the form at the bottom of the page.