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Universities: Are you mistreating your content?

Universities: Are you mistreating your content?

In this article, Marcos Villaseñor, UX Lead at Precedent, reflects on how content is shaped by the platforms we use to deliver it, and how we can do something about it. 

“The Medium is the Message.” Marshall McLuhan’s famous phrase might be 54 years old, but it is as relevant as ever.

This is particularly true as the Create Once, Publish Everywhere (COPE) model shifts from being a buzzword to being a reality. The dream of COPE is that we will be able to create assets and publish them, irrespective of the platform. Yet, as McLuhan reminds us, effective content can never be medium, or platform, agnostic.

Problems emerge when we try to jam our content into containers where it just doesn’t fit. This is a common problem in higher education (HE), where institutions struggle to deliver crucial information for existing students through platforms built exclusively for marketing purposes.

It’s possible to draw parallels with the Bonsai Kitten hoax of the early noughties. Why are we mistreating our content like this? We want our content to flourish, not become mangled by the container used to deliver it.

When we design content, the first step is considering the platform we will use to deliver it.

Sometimes we have control over those platforms (our CMS, for example), and sometimes we don’t, as when we use social networks built by other people.

In situations where we have control, content strategy needs to shape the platform – not the other way around.

At Precedent, we like to say that we don’t build websites: we build design systems to deliver content. A design system is a collection of building blocks which can be reconfigured to educate, inform and engage. The system must be flexible, but at the same time built – and stress-tested – specifically for the content it will house.

The CMS cannot afford to be content-agnostic. And in much the same way, content cannot afford to be user-agnostic.

Most HE organisations nowadays define themselves as student-centred. But this means developing empathy with all students, and other site visitors, at the same time as backend users.

When we develop true empathy, we start to see how our platforms are shaping our content in ways they shouldn’t. Perhaps the system is so unwieldy that content editors struggle to present anything that isn’t text, or the only thing the CMS can do is bamboozle users with complex functionality, when everything that matters takes half a dozen clicks to find.

Under circumstances like these, it’s impossible to deliver even the most perfect of content strategies. But what does a platform that’s fit for purpose look like?

1. Made for humans: To build a system, you need to understand what your users share with all other human beings, alongside the characteristics and behaviours that make them distinct. And the only way to do this is by engaging with them through research.

2. Easy to use: Everyone wants to design intuitive platforms, but the big question is: “What does intuitive look like?” Accessibility is also a key consideration, and not only for people with different abilities – accessibility makes the experience easier for everyone.

3. Findable: Content must be easy to find, and surfaced at the right moment. Personalisation through AI holds a big promise, but even organisations with much less technology can still deliver.

4. Engaging: Ease of use alone is not sufficient; a platform must be a pleasure to use. This not only means thinking about aesthetics, but also offering lot of intelligently delivered visual information and, in particular, storytelling – every article should be built around a clear narrative.

5. Iterative: Embrace imperfection – any design will have shortcomings. Let users tell you who they are and what they need, and then improve on this. But iterate not only to improve, but to keep up with change: both within your organisation and user preferences.

But what about when you can’t control the design of the platform? The principle is similar. All of the major social networks have spent fortunes, and countless human hours, designing for their users, so you need to understand the design principles of their systems, at the same time as the culture of their users. Discover the spoken and unspoken rules of the communities that populate these networks.

You don’t want to do an Ed Balls,  or be the insensitive brand that tells users to forget the hurricane and come shopping instead.

Understand how the platform functions, and its culture, and shape your content to it. This doesn’t mean chopping up your articles into 280-character bits. It means delivering your message into a concise 280-character tweet, or a 3 second Instagram story, or a 400-word Medium post.

Considering how containers shape content might seem like another task burdening already overstretched marketing and digital teams. But even a basic level of awareness that they do is a step in the right direction.