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Content utility in content strategy and design

Users care for content utility more than the content usability.

Usability has been an important design criteria ever I can remember. There is a history of design usability studies that started in the 1980s (source). In the content strategy community, content usability was generally discussed for its usefulness to the audience. Colleen Jones wrote about content testing in 2009 (source: UXmatters) where Colleen says that testing content is much more than usability testing.

Design plays an important role in customers’ moment of decision or action—what informs the users in their current moment of activity, what guides them, and what helps them to take an action. Content is different because many a times, content on another interface prepares the users or guides them for an action on the current interface. For example:

  • A toast notification advises them to upgrade their subscription plan to use advanced features, users carry that same expectation on the next step when they upgrade and when they start using the advanced features.
  • Or, when a support ticket email advises them to take a series of steps to upgrade a plan; the users carry and follow the same steps somewhere else in the product.

Content plays a role on the interconnectedness of the steps on the same or multiple interface. These series of messages might have been planned and designed by different teams. This is why content utility is a lot different from content usability.

Content’s utility is less about in-the-moment interactions but more about the wholeness of their actions.

Content’s relevance to the audience is in its usability, utility, and usefulness.

  • Usability—what makes the content usable. For example can the users select multiple options in the Languages field while filling a form. Usability is an early-stage customer-moment criteria and they can sense the content utility or usefulness only if the content is usable.
  • Utility—whether the users feel satisfied for what they wanted to see or do or find on the interface. Utility answers their satisfaction for their current use case even though content might not be useful for them for their ultimate goal. For example I want to select two languages—English and Spanish, and both the options are available. Another user wants to select five languages and they can select five languages without a confusion. Utility gives them the assurance that they are taking the right steps, and so it takes their journey forward.
  • Usefulness—whether the users find the content useful, for the value of their investments—in time, cost, energy. Usefulness is about the ultimate benefits and value of the content to the users. For example selecting the two languages—English and Spanish have been useful to the customers for whatever they want to do.

Utility sits in the middle of whether the content is usable, and whether the content is useful to the users. For example when the customers are trying to find specific instructions in a support center, whether they can find an answer within an acceptable time and in acceptable number of steps or clicks is a key metric for a content utility (Mark Baker wrote about it in 2014). The usability of a Help Center does not mean that the documentation is useful to them if they cannot find the right answer to their questions. Mark Baker adds—”If tech writers have a distinguishing role in maintaining the content utility, it is not simply as another generator of content. Rather, the particular job of the tech comm group is to make sure that overall content supply is maintained. To do this, we certainly need to generate a lot of content. But that alone will not ensure reliability of supply and avoid blackouts and brownouts for our customers. As the engineers of the content utility company, we need to monitor the overall information network and its performance and act where needed to ensure the reliability of content supply.”

Content utility is a lot about content reliability which means the right content should be available to the users at the right time on the right device, in the right language, and in the context of their use case. This serves the users’ immediate needs and goals.

In product content, UX writers and content designers (I am with you on this overlap in these two roles here), need to focus on the content utility. It gives a tremendous boost to the customers’ intent in the moment, and they are likely to complete their current job or task, with more confidence.

If content fails on utility, there is no point of checking it for usability or usefulness. Mike Myles of Adobe says that the UX rating is calculated by weighting the results of each individual item—utility is worth 3x, usability 2x, and presentation 1x. Mike mentions Fred Davis in their Medium post, Fred designed the Technology Acceptance Model) which shows that showed that usefulness is 1-5 times more important than the ease of use as a predictor of actual product usage.

Evidence based design helps us to plan the content that actually answers the user’s questions and help them make the right decisions at the right time. Even in UX studies, the utility has been an important part of the UX effectiveness graphs. In UX Curve: A method for evaluating long-term user experience, (by Oxford University Press, opens in a new tab), the core utility reasons were related to functionality, durability, and practicality while the soft reasons were mostly related to the stimulation, identification and aesthetics.

Content needs to be well-designed for its message depending on the users’ expectations at that stage, and for their information consumption patters. Consider an example of a user who have subscribed to the free plan for the last five days, and their account activity is variable A. We need to advise them that they can upgrade to the paid plan P1 so that they can use the features or stories X, Y, Z to unlock another set of product capabilities that are derived from their use cases in their current activity.

  • Content utility is about the right timing—to sense at what time it makes the perfect for the user, to see a message on the interface. Note that this message can be shared with them as a notification, in an email too (part of drip campaigns strategy), and on the interface itself for a forever reference unless they turn it off.
  • Content utility is more about making them feel that the product is useful to them because it answers their questions and it helps them proactively.
  • Content utility is content sense-making for some use cases that might not be captured in the user stories or job stories at the granular level. For example, when we draw user’s activity path for a very specific use case, they might not be prepared for the adjacent possibilities within that use case. Content utility guides them for all those scenarios, by designing the right interactions.
  • Content utility is product sense-making because you use the evidence and your own judgment for what the users want to do, what the organization wants them to do, where do these two wants intersect, and how you can communicate the fine line. We see it in SaaS so often—the prompts to upgrade their current subscription plan, or the alerts that stop them to cancel their plan.
  • Content utility is a great education for the product team as well—imagine a few scenarios where the team wants to track how a set of customers responds in specific situations when they read a piece of content. Whether it retains the customers, or converts them to the brand advocates, or makes them cancel the account—product can always learn about the customer behavior. Content utility brings clarity in the boundaries in such use cases, for easy reference.

If you work in content, remember that users care for content utility more than the content usability. Of course usability opens the doors for utility but we need to know the boundaries.

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This topic is part of my advanced course in product content strategy, content design, and UX Writing. See the course details for how we can find and add more meaning to our work.

Vinish Garg

Vinish Garg

I am Vinish Garg, and I work with growing product teams for their product strategy, product vision, product positioning, product onboarding and UX, and product growth. I work on products for UX and design leadership roles, product content strategy and content design, and for the brand narrative strategy. I offer training via my advanced courses for content strategists, content designers, UX Writers, content-driven UX designers, and for content and design practitioners who want to explore product and system thinking.

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Vinish Garg is an independent consultant in product content strategy, content design leadership, and product management for growing product teams.