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 digital channels.
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
- The preparations you need to do (strategy, target groups and user needs)
- The different steps in the Core model sheet
- How to get started using the model yourself
What is the core model?
The Core model was introduced in 2006 by me — Are — and 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 Aalen’s seminal article on A List Apart from 2015, entitled The Core Model: Designing Inside Out for Better Results. The article features a great case study from The Norwegian Cancer Union. The model has also been featured in Megan Casey’s book The Content Strategy Toolkit.
The 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 non governmental organizations.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the core model is that it‘s so timeless 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 surrounding process, 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 methodology 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, and make all your digital channels work in tandem.
The Core model is not just a sheet and a workshop. For the Core workshop to have maximum effect, it needs to be 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 workshop) is all 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. These cores can be web pages, digital products — or in principle any digital (or analogue) process.
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 organizational levels in the form of core pairs. Every core pair work their way through their core sheet, with target groups, user tasks, objectives, inward paths 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 actions will be implemented.
Before you start working on the core sheet and planning the Core Workshop, you need to have full control of 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 (primary target groups) 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 the puzzle bits 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 you also need to get internal anchoring for the results.
And you most probably need do quite a few insight activities to be able to document user needs well enough (see below).
Strategy and target audiences
Do you have a good grip on your strategy? Do you know which direction you are going? 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 to get the anchoring you need for 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.
Do you know the basic needs of your target groups / users?
This is the most important point in the preparation process.
If you do not have insight into the real needs of your target groups, you can not expect the outcome of the Core workshop to be relevant.
If you have full control over your user’s 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 and top task analysis.
When you have done the preparations, you can run a Priority workshop with key stakeholders and people who know the customers. (I’ll explain more about this when I get around to it. Feel free to subscribe to my newsletter if you want a heads up when it’s ready :-)
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 in core pairs with each their “core”. These cores could be a webpage, a process, an article or any kind of digital (or analog) initiative. A core is usually identical to a contact point in a customer journey map.
In the workshop, each of 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 KPIs to the individual goal, it’s 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, large parts of the workshop can be wasted in needless discussions.
- 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 the right conversion, based on timing, relevance and context related to the user task in question.
- 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 optimal solution.
- Prioritization: How should we prioritize if we are to make a 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 simple 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 create a common understanding and anchoring of strategy, user needs and priorities with key people in the organization. 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 actions and measures needed to bring the results to life in the simplest possible way?
The last part of the Core workshop is all about translating ideas and priorities into actual actions that can be realized — in an as simple as possible way.
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 concretization 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. the web editor, or the Chief Digital Transformation Officer)
- When should it happen? (i.e. tomorrow, or in three months)
Actions and ideas that cannot be implemented in the short term should be included in a backlog, with responsible persons following them up.
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 they prioritize and concretize core content and decide how to take action on this in a Core workshop.
- Digital maturity: By taking the participants in the Core Workshop through a step-by-step process within a clear framework of an intuitive model (with no buzzwords), it becomes easier to get everyone aboard.
- Internal communication: The effect of representatives from the entire organization working together in core pairs across silos, levels and competences in a core workshop, 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 solutions, 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 forever about the importance of content, but a Core workshop makes everyone understand it. Because the participants actually have to write the content themselves.
- Multi channel strategy: The Core model forces us to think across channels, both digital and analog. It lets 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.
- 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 people, both consultants and in-house, around common goals in the project, and to agree on concrete actions rooted in a common understanding.
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 and business model canvases, etc. And the model does not cover the actual design and development processes.
But the Core model has proven its place a powerful tool in a methodology toolbox, in tandem with other good methods and approaches.
The forthcoming book
I have written a book about the Core model in Norwegian, and hopefully the English version will be ready in the course of 2022.
You can find all the different templates for the Core model here. They come 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’ve tried out the Core model and had any experiences, good or bad, I really appreciate if you share them with me! I’m working on a book about the Core Model, and would very much like to learn more about how others use it. Please fill out this form or reach out to email@example.com.
If you want to facilitate a Core workshop in your 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. I give lectures and presentations, and I facilitate courses, workshops and do in-house training. I’m happy to arrange and facilitate a tailor-made Core workshop or kickoff with your team, your organization, or your client if you are a consultant.
You can also find me at one of these conferences (as of April 2022):
- Utterly Content (Online, March 1.)
- Yggdrasil (Sandefjord, April 25.-26.)
- Confab (Minnesota, May 9.-12.)
- OmnichannelX (Online, June 13.-16.)
You can also check out this podcast I did with Larry Ellison for Content Strategy Insights:
Are Halland: the Core Model, a versatile tool for content strategists and IAs
Podcast: Play in new window | Download Subscribe: Apple Podcasts | Google Podcasts | Stitcher | TuneIn | RSS Are…
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