User Stories in Content Strategy: Marketing with Empathy

I have a confession to make.

I spend a lot of time talking to clients about content, and that’s a good thing.

But something that has become a critical issue for seasoned content strategists has less to do with content and more to do with who the content is for.

While we should be thinking and talking about content, we should also be talking about user experience in a real-world way.

ux designUnderstanding user experience strategy (UX) is something content strategists need to take very seriously. UX helps designers, developers and owners gain a straightforward understanding of the users’ intent, state and behaviour.

Back in the early days, content strategists never used to consider user experience until after the content strategy process began. We would commit to an audit of the current site, and once we began planning the new site structure, UX would be implemented by design.

Designers used to be the ones responsible for flagging it, so the average content strategist of the era didn’t give it too much thought. In the days of siloed departments, UX came when design came, which was after we did our heavy lifting.

But looking back, does it seem fair that a content strategist should think about content before they start thinking about users, especially when the content is in service of users?

Well we did, and it boggles my mind that this was considered standard.

I bring up the past to give us a reference to where we are today: fundamentally, people should be the focus here. Yes, as content strategists, we want our content to be well structured, optimized for search and complete with language, images, labels, titles and tags that work. But we should have a strong sense of our buyer before we start those layers of effort. As a content strategist, my role is to defend the needs of the user, so perhaps I should start by entering them into the equation first.

Over the last 2 years in my industry, this conversation went from a whisper to a scream. So I took a few months to re-examine my approach to user-experience research principles and how I can better incorporate them into content strategy at Top Draw. The results have been excellent.

user experience

So what is user experience exactly?

User experience is a process of using frameworks and tools that help creative teams think through a project from the perspective of the user. Fundamentally, user research is the difference between creating what a business thinks their customers want and creating something that we prove that our customers want. User research is chock full of surprises, because it helps to eliminate a lot of the assumptions marketers make about their customers. The user experience tool that I am especially fond of are user stories.

What are user stories?

User stories are a tool that comes from the agile software development framework. A bunch of clever coders and project managers found a way to build a workflow that puts emphasis on putting out projects quickly and collaboratively. User stories are one of the results of this work. They are simple sentences that define who a user is and what they want to do. But they take into account a lot of previous research, including project objectives, project scope, competition, business requirements, etc.

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User stories clarify the intention of a user and removes a lot of the extraneous but important information.

My favourite format is the following:

As a ___________, I want to ___________ so that I can __________.

At first glance, breaking a website down into singular tasks like this might seem unnatural. It does get easier the more you do it. You will discover that on larger sites and systems, you will create a library of user stories, and these can give a clear picture of which user needs what function and where that function needs to reside. This ground-level understanding makes your content audits easier and faster, and these stories can influence the new site structure and help you simplify the experience for your identified users.

When I talk to our customers about user stories, I sometimes watch their eyes light up as they shout, “Well, that’s easy, I want (this thing) on the home page and that thing (and that other thing) everywhere else on the website—and on the home page!”

Unfortunately, that‘s not how it works.

We have to ask ourselves, based on the research, if a user story defines a true intention of the user. This guarantees the immediate death of website features that are not in the best service of the user.

And I should also mention that user stories are one part of the user experience toolkit. We bring a number of other tools to the workshop, depending on the project, but user stories remain the one constant for any new web development.

Among our team, the content and design teams have taken months to combine the power of evidence-based decisions and technical know-how, aligning them with true empathy and understanding of site users. Creating a balance of these influences ensures that whatever the purpose of the website or web property we create, we are confident that the site’s primary users are well considered while we build what they ultimately want.