Content Testing: Pros and Cons

Sara Zailskas Walsh recently made a solid case for content testing. Here’s a blurb from her Medium article that summarizes the benefits:

How Does Content Testing Help Design?

Here are three big benefits:

  1. It helps designers establish the framework for our conversations with customers.
  2. It helps designers understand the words we need to use so customers understand us.
  3. It helps designers understand the information and emotion their designs need to convey in customer moments.”

I highly recommend reading her whole article, as she makes a lot of good points, including:

  • Content needs to be tested
  • Content creators rarely get all their questions asked during usability testing
  • In content-first design, designers need to know what the content creators are trying to convey

I’d like to suggest some additional methods for testing content.

Content in a vacuum

As Sara points out, we need to understand not only if content fits with the design, but also if it’s reaching our audience. We need to know if they feel “yes, this organization gets me” based on the terminology that we use, and if they think “that makes sense” when they read our instructions. But words don’t stand alone in design, and to test content in a word document will get inaccurate responses. The best use of content testing, as Sara says, is to clarify the conversation before getting into design. With that in mind, here are a few ways to test – and alternatives to traditionally testing – the conversation.


Journey Mapping

Traditionally, designers create journey maps to understand how a user gets from Step 1 (learning a brand exists, beginning a search for a new car, finding out they’re pregnant) to the final step (making a purchase, giving birth, etc). They use the map to identify when and where the user takes action, which will then influence the design.

I’ve long been a proponent of journey mapping for content strategy. A content strategist can add to a big picture journey with a realistic understanding of the content that exists to support the journey. This is also the first step to creating a viable conversation. While journey mapping isn’t specifically a type of testing, it is a first step in validating the types of content and valuable information that will create the conversation.

Participatory Design

Testing content is intended to validate our beliefs and understanding with actual users. At Mad*Pow, we’re a big fan of starting the entire design process with a workshop that involves actual users. Users take a stab at crafting the ideal conversation they would have with a person, website, or application to accomplish their goals. They explain why they make the design choices they do, and as we listen to them we hear their reasoning and are able to then create conversations (through both content and design) that follow that same reasoning.

In addition, participatory design gives us a chance to test out and iterate on conversation snippets or ideas with real users. We can sometimes iterate on one idea multiple times within just a few hours, learning what rings true and what does not connect for them. Participatory design saves a lot of time and energy down the road, by getting users involved early and often.

Content-Specific Testing

Sara brings up an excellent point in her article; a flaw in using design testing to test content: “But I always wanted to ask more than we ever had time for.”

There’s an obvious solution here that doesn’t require content to be isolated from design: just as design gets tested with “real” (placeholder) content in place, we can set up content-specific testing with “real” design in place. We can run an entire content test, asking all the questions the content team needs to have answered, using designs that augment our content choices.

I advocate for this choice over copy-only because, as Sara says, the sum of all design parts makes for a great experience. A well-done design supports the content choices we make, and the content alone can allow people to get overly distracted by a certain word choice that, in the greater scheme of the design, makes far more sense.

The key to content-specific testing is working closely with the research team, and letting them know early on that there are content areas that need exploration, above and beyond what can be found out in usability testing.

How Else?

There are many other ways to test content, and I am all ears. How else do you prototype conversations?

Marli Mesibov

Marli is a content strategist with a passion for the user experience. Her work spans websites, web applications, and mobile. Marli is the VP of Content Strategy at the UX design agency Mad*Pow, where she helps healthcare, finance, and educational organizations communicate with their audiences. Marli is a frequent conference speaker, and has spoken at conferences including Content Strategy Forum and LavaCon. She can also be found on Twitter, where she shares thoughts on content strategy, literature, and Muppets.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *