The Content Design process: a primer

Throughout Inquisition’s 5-year journey, we have been through many phases of how we think about content: strategising, planning, production and implementing it in various contexts.

Through our experience with startups, marketing teams, C-suite executives and our Creative Technology startup, SiGNL, we have grown to welcome an experimental culture to our work in this field, embracing emergent strategies.

Inspired by ubiquitous Design frameworks such as IDEO’s Human-Centered Design kit, and our work in the local startup scene, we’ve created Inquisition’s Design Process which we apply in our client work, whose deeper philosophy we will cover in a separate post.

Below are the the stages we’ve identified, along with brief explanations, that we have started to apply to Content Design with client teams.

1) Establish: clarifying purpose

We have experienced content teams starting with an idea that was passed down to them from a client or management team. What’s not always apparent, however, is a clear purpose, one which resonates with the actual team tasked with producing content, the higher “reason for being” that propels them to move forward and act as a responsive, empowered unit. Additionally, team members aren’t always clear about each other’s specific skills or roles and responsibilities within the team.

This is what we’d call the Project Purpose. It can be further broken down into Communications Purpose, Content Marketing Purpose, etc. as needed. The 5 Why’s exercise can be handy in getting started on this discussion as a team.

2) Explore: gathering research and idea generation

We’ve been in situations where a brand and its servicing agencies make risky assumptions about their content-powered campaigns: who the target audience should be and why; which channels and formats would be best to pursue; what metrics are useful to track; what success looks like; and so forth.

User-centered research is needed to eliminate assumptions as much as possible to increase the chance of creating content people actually want to consume and act upon. It seems obvious to take this approach but the power of the availability bias can be quite strong and is certainly a more tempting, easier route to just get going. This research should be targeted, quick, inexpensive and provide rich insights. (See Just Enough Research).

When data has been collected from intended audiences and related sources, this is also the stage where it is turned into meaningful insights and many diverse possible solutions.

Typically the content and broader team would gather to sort and categorise gathered research, sharing insights and digging into deep questioning. This is followed by various idea generation processes such as brainstorming, where they would use their creativity to quickly generate ideas to address the problems identified (to take advantage of current and emerging opportunities).

3) Express: refining ideas

At this stage where there are possibly hundreds of ideas, the team would run through cycles of idea refinement, including positive critique and categorisation frameworks until themes and trends emerge. While it can feel hard to see progress during refinement cycles, following frameworks brings structure to the process by visually representing your idea categorisation and showing you which ideas would be best for your team to pursue.

4) Evaluate: getting feedback

The team’s top ideas are now ready to leave the lab and be tested on real audiences in order to get rapid feedback. A quick and cost effective ways of doing this is through testing a prototype, be it a blog post, video clip, partially designed interface, or some other form that has been deemed suitable to correctly assess how well the idea addresses the problems identified in the Exploration stage.

In the past we’ve coached teams to make use of the Experiment Board (or alternatively, Validation Board), a tool typically used by startups and product teams to validate product ideas, to capture collected data from running content experiments and openly display progress to the entire team or company. Several cycles of tests are expected as data is received.

Once the team has had a good grasp of what will succeed based on real data and feedback, we would in the future like to test introducing the Inquisition Content Model Canvas at this stage, which is based on the Business Model Canvas. This Canvas helps easily communicate the value created by content efforts, whom the content activities serve, and how, among relevant stakeholders.

The above may seem daunting at first, but once a team has made the design thinking and experimentation part of their process, the cycle can become quicker such as in a 5-day or extended 2-week Design Sprint. It then starts to become a habit to think and act in this way.

As with most things at Inquisition, we are constantly experimenting with our design process. If you are interested in joining us on this journey, we would love to share our learnings with you and learn from you in return as we continue to evolve our thinking and work in this space. Get in touch: crew@inquisition.co.za