This is the Core Model
The Core Model is a simple, effective and efficient tool that helps you prioritize, simplify and get things done in your project.
Here is an introduction to the model, with an explanation of how to get started using it.
In this article you will learn:
- What the core model is and what it can be used for
- How a core workshop works
- What preparation you need do (strategy, target groups and user needs)
- The different steps in the core model sheet
- How to get started using the model yourself
This article is for the time being a quick translation of the norwegian version. I mostly used Google Translate, so please bear with me for now. Any kind of editing help is greatly appreciated :)
What is the core model?
The core model was introduced in 2006 by me — Are — and as of today it’s being used by all kinds of companies, organizations and consultants, all over the world.
The most popular reference for the methodology is Ida Aalens seminal article on A List Apart from 2015, titled The Core Model: Designing Inside Out for Better Results. It has also been featured in a.o. Megan Casey’s book The Content Strategy Toolkit.
The core model is particularly popular with content strategists and designers, web editors, UX designers and digital marketers, but is also being used by communications advisors, service designers, product managers and others who in some way or another are working with digital strategy, design or communication.
Over the past 14 years, the model has been tested in the trenches through hundreds of projects, large and small, across industries and sectors, both in businesses, governments and voluntary organizations.
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the core model is that it is so banal and intuitive that it is at least as relevant today as it was in 2006.
A Kinder Surprise
The core sheet itself may look banal, but together with the process around, the core model is a bit like a Kinder Surprise egg — it’s actually three things in one:
- A tool for prioritization: The model and the process helps you prioritize between a multitude of different initiatives in different channels. It helps you figure out where to start and how to go forward to reach your goals.
- A tool for collaboration: The model can be used to create anchoring, understanding and digital maturity in the entire organization. The process around the model consists of a thorough preparation and a one-day mini-sprint (AKA core workshop).
- A tool for thinking: The model provides a good starting point for identifying connections between strategy and user needs. At the same time, it gives you a fresh approach that forces you to think from the inside out.
Many who have used the model think that it is primarily a tool for creating web pages, but the model also has many other aspects.
In fact, the core model methodology has so many uses that it makes it a little difficult to explain!
- Strategic thinking: The model highlights many of the most important elements of a business plan, from target groups, strategy and user needs, to marketing, conversion and KPIs.
- User focus: The model forces participants to see their own solutions from a user perspective when prioritizing and concretising in the core workshop.
- Digital maturity: By taking the participants in the core workshop through a step-by-step process within a clear framework in an intuitive model (with no buzzwords), it becomes easier to get everyone involved.
- Internal communication: The effect of representatives from the entire organization working together in core pairs, across silos, levels and competences, has proven to be one of the most important benefits of the method.
- Anchoring: Because it is a large group methodology, where everyone can help to prioritize concrete solution the way they want, the process provides unique anchoring for a larger design process.
- Creativity, design thinking and collaboration: The process is itself a mini version of the design principles and the first two phases of the Double Diamond framework.
- Design Sprinting: The Core Workshop is a great alternative to Google Design Sprint. You can get many of the same effects, plus some others, in one fifth of the common calendar time.
- Service design: The model is a perfect tool for service designers, where they can “zoom in” and work specifically with one contact point in the customer journey at the time. The model itself is a mini customer journey from and to other contact points, both digital and analog.
- Content strategy: The model forces us to be concrete, down to actual wording of the content. Content strategist may argue that content is important forever, but a core workshop can make everyone understand it. Because they actually have to write the content themselves.
- Channel strategy: The core model forces us to think across channels, both digital and analog. You discover connections between channels that you would not have seen otherwise.
- Marketing: The model provides goals and directions for cross channel marketing in the form of push and pull, digital and analog, paid and organic, etc.
- Conversion: The success of a digital initiative can be defined as traffic*conversion. If one of the factors is zero, the result is failure. The model clearly shows the relationship between traffic (Inward paths) and conversion rate (Forward paths) so that everyone can understand it.
- Innovation: As a thinking and collaboration tool, the model is well suited to innovation processes, both in established organizations and in startups.
- Project management: The core workshop is a great way to gather key personell, both consultants and in-house, around common goals in the project, and to agree on concrete actions rooted in a common understanding.
And all of this happens entirely without buzzwords and yellow stickers.
By all means, the core model does not solve all the problems in the world. You should still work continuously to gain insights, create customer journeys, run strategy processes, etc. And the model does not cover design and development.
But the core model could a powerful tool in your toolbox, along with other good methods and approaches.
The core model is not just a sheet and a workshop. For the core workshop to have maximum effect, it has to preceded by thorough preparations and follow up.
The process around the core model and the core workshop has the following elements:
- The preparation (before the core workshop) is about getting a basic understanding and anchoring of the strategy, the target groups and the user needs.
- Based on this, you define a number of cores to work with in the core workshop. The cores can be web pages, digital products — or in principle anything.
- The core workshop is a one-day mini-sprint carried out in a large group. The goal is for representatives from the entire organization to work together two and two, across silos and levels in the organisation, in the form of core couples. Every core couple work their way through their core sheet, with tasks, goals, inward and forward paths, before defining and prioritizing the core content.
- Finally, the entire group define the concrete actions needed to realize the results of the core workshop together. The actions are put into a follow-up system (backlog), which defines who is responsible, as well as when and how the action will be implemented.
Before you start working on the core sheet and planning the core workshop, you should have full control over your strategy, target groups and user needs.
If you do not know what you want (have a clear strategy), who you are going to deliver to (priority audiences) and what they actually need (documented user needs), you risk that the core workshop ends up in endless discussions without results.
And you would prefer to avoid that. So if you do not have the necessary oversight, make sure you get it first.
Perhaps you have most of it already. But the strategy is often a bit woolly, the target groups are a bit vague, and many simply have too many figures and reports, but too little real insight into what the users actually want.
So you need to sort this out, and to get anchoring for the results.
And probably you should also do more insight activities to be able to document user needs well enough (see below).
Strategy and audiences
Do you have a good grip on your strategy? Do you know where you want to go? Do you also know who your target audience is and have you prioritized between them?
The work here often consists of reading, interpreting and breaking down strategy documents and powerpoints into something that can be used in practice. That is, to be relevant for the digital channels you are working with. Often you also need to talk to the real decision makers to find out what the actual strategy is and work on anchoring the interpretation of the strategy that you will be working on.
If you do not have specific and prioritized target groups, it will be difficult to obtain the right user insight and to tailor measures to the needs. You need to clean this up in case.
A good alternative for anchoring strategy and target groups is to conduct a combined goals and target group workshop with the most important decision makers.
Do you know the basic needs of your target groups / users?
This is the most important point in the preparation.
If you do not have insight into the real needs of your target groups, you can also not expect the outcome of the core workshop to be good.
If you have full control over user needs — congratulations! But most of us will have quite some homework to do before the core workshop.
As a rule of thumb, you can expect to spend about a month gaining adequate user insight.
You need to find the right combination of qualitative and quantitative methods in this insight work, typically in-depth interviews, user testing, customer service logs, web statistics, search logs, top task analysis, etc.
When the preparation is in place, you conduct a full-day core workshop with participants across levels, silos and disciplines, so that the priorities are rooted in the entire organization.
In the core workshop, participants work together two and two with each their “core”, which could typically be a webpage, a process, an article or any kind of digital initiative. In the workshop, a the core couples fill in the various parts in the core sheet step by step:
- Business objectives: What are the concrete, prioritized goals for the solution that can be deduced directly from the overall strategy? These can typically be increased revenues, reduced expenses and increased efficiency. If it is possible to link target numbers to the individual targets, it is a great bonus.
- User tasks: What are the specific actions that the users want to perform? What kind of questions do they want answers to? This could be “buy a new washing machine”, “check the prices of car insurance” or “check the opening hours in the local library”. The tasks should be deduced from documented user needs. Otherwise, most of the workshop can be wasted in quarreling.
- Inward paths: Where is the user / customer before he or she comes to us? And how can we create good inward paths to us from where the user is? This often concerns different types of inbound marketing (search engine marketing, content marketing, social media, etc.) or other ways to generate traffic to the solutions. But also information architecture in the form of search and navigation on a website.
- Forward paths: What are the prioritized calls to actions that will create the right conversion towards our most important goals? What mode is the user in after he or she has solved the task? Which techniques from behavioral psychology and rhetoric may be relevant? In most cases, it is quite possible to increase the likelihood of proper conversion, based on timing, relevance and context based on what we know about the user task.
- Core Content: Given what we know about tasks, goals, inward paths and forward paths — what would be the optimal way to solve a user task? What content and functionality in which channel is the easiest and best way to do it? Here we first work with idea generation, before we narrow in on the best solution.
- Prioritization: How should we prioritize if we are to make a completely concrete proposal for what must be done in order to put the solutions to life? Here you can use different approaches, typically “mobile first” or experiment cards.
- Action: What is needed to make proposals and priorities actually happen? Here we use a simple kind of action cards (see below).
The power of a core workshop is first and foremost that you get the participants to create concrete proposals through a simple and practical process. By having the right participants in the workshop, you can in this way create a common understanding and anchoring of strategy, user needs and priorities of important key people. And not least, you can get progress in the right direction in an easy way, without using a single buzzwords or yellow sticker!
Make things happen
What are the concrete measures needed to bring the results to life in the simplest possible way?
The last part of the core workshop is about translating ideas and priorities into actual actions that can be realized — as simple as possible.
Are there any short-term actions we can take, like rewriting a text or running simple experiments with other product names or prices? Or should we embark on a larger redesign process? What actions must be done, and who should be responsible?
As part of the concretisation of measures one can also fill out simple action cards, which consist of these fields:
- What must be done? (I.e. updating text on a web page, or starting a redesign process)
- How should we do it? (I.e. change the text in the publishing system, or meeting with the agency)
- Who’s going to do it? (i.e. Kari, the web editor)
- When should it happen? (i.e. tomorrow, or in two months)
Actions and ideas that cannot be implemented in the short term should be included in a backlog, which someone is responsible for following up.
You can download the template and start using the core model as a tool for thinking and prioritizing right away. It comes with a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 license, meaning you can use it freely as long as you refer to the origin. You can also make changes to the model, but you have to share your work on the same terms.
If you have made experiences with the model, good or bad, I really appreciate if you share them with me! I am working on a book about the core model, and would very much like to learn more about how others use it. Reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you want to facilitate a more comprehensive core workshop in the entire organization, I recommend trying out the format in a smaller group first. Feel free to contact me or others who use the model to get some good advice.
I’m currently working full time as an independent advisor and facilitator for core model processes and workshops, where I give lectures and presentations, and I facilitate courses, workshops and in-house training. I’m happy to arranging and facilitating a tailor-made core workshop or kickoff with your team, your organization, or your client if you are a consultant.
I also offer a three day course which would give you a title as a “certified facilitator of core workshops. The next one up is May 4.-6. in cooperation with IGM. The course is in norwegian, but I’m happy to make an english version on demand.
I also provide an online video course through Videocation, where you learn how to use the core model as a thinking tool during 20 short lessons. This course is in norwegian, but it will be texted in english in the near future.
You may also have a look at these two other, related, articles/rants in english: