How can writers know when content is good enough to satisfy users?  Content quality should not be the subjective judgment of an individual writer, whose opinion may differ from other writers. Content teams should be able to articulate what the content needs to say to satisfy user expectations. I want to explore three tools that content designers and writers can use help them determine how well their content will meet user needs.  Unlike the straight usability testing of content, these tools provide guidance before content is created and diagnostic evaluation after the content has been made.

Good quality content helps people accomplish their tasks and realize their larger goals. To create high quality content, writers need to understand 

  1. The tasks and goals of people
  2. What knowledge and information people need to use the content
  3. Any issues that could arise that hinder people having a satisfactory outcome

Writers can understand what content needs to address by using tools that focus on the user tasks.  Three useful tools are:

  1. Users stories and Jobs-to-be-Done
  2. Behavior driven design
  3. Task analysis 

Each tool offers specific benefits.

Defining goals: User Stories and Jobs-to-be-Done

User stories and Jobs-to-be-Done (JTBD) are two common approaches to planning customer experiences.  User stories are the default way to plan agile IT.  JTBD has gained a big following in the corporate world, especially among product managers.  Content professionals may participate in projects that use these tools.

I’m not going to recap the extensive literature on user stories and JTBD, much of which isn’t focused specifically on content.  Fortunately, Sarah Richards has explored both these approaches in her book Content Design, and she’s done a great job of showing the relevance of each to the work of content professionals.  For my part I want to explore the uses and limitations of user stories and JTBD as it relates to understanding content quality.

Sarah Richards notes: “a user story is a way of pinning down what the team needs to do without telling them how to do it.”

The basic pattern of a user story is: 

  • As a X [kind of person or role], I want to Y [task] so that I can Z [activity or end goal]

The “so that” clause is both the test of success and the motivation for activity.  User stories separate intermediate goals (Y) from end goals (Z).  If the user is able to get to their next step, the goal beyond the immediate one, we assume that the content is successful.   Richards suggests breaking out the “I want to” into separate discrete tasks if the person has several things they want to do in support of a larger goal.  So, if the user wants to do two things, they should be broken into two separate stories.

JTBD or job stories are similar to user stories, except they focus on the job rather than the user.  Richards states: “Job stories are a better choice if you have only one audience to deal with.”   That’s a good point.  And sometimes everyone has the same needs.  People may belong to different segments, but everyone faces a common situation and needs a common resolution.   Everyone on a cancelled flight wants to get booked on another flight that leaves soon, whether or not they are business class or “basic economy” passengers.  

In summary, the difference between user story and job story is the introductory clause:

  • User story: As a X [persona or audience segment]
  • Job story When [a situation]

What this introductory clause tries to do is introduce some context: what people know, what issue they face, or how they are likely to think about an issue.  But the introductory clause is not precise enough to give us much detail about the context.

User and job stories are a helpful way to break down different tasks and goals that needs to bed addressed.  But it is easy to see how these frameworks are so broad that they might fail to provide specific guidance.  For example, a job story could be:

  • “When the power goes off, I want to know who to contact so that I know when the power will be back on.”  

There are several leaps that occur in this story.  We don’t know if the power outage is isolated to the customer or is widespread.  We assume that having a point of contact is what customers need, and that POC will tell the user when the power will be back on.  Even if that job is how a customer expressed their story, it doesn’t mean the building content around the story will provide the customer with a satisfactory outcome.  

User stories and JTBD are loose, even squishy.  Their vagueness provides latitude on how to address a need, but it can also introduce a degree of ambiguity in what needs to happen.  

User and job stories often include “acceptance criteria” so that teams know when they are done.  In the words of Sarah Richards: “Meeting acceptance criteria gives your team a chance to tick things off the to-do list.”  Richards warns against the dangers of acceptance criteria “that puts the solution up front.”  In other words, the acceptance criteria should avoid getting into details of how something is done, though it should indicate exactly what the user is expecting to be able to do.  

As far as I can tell, no universal format exists for writing acceptance criteria.  They may be a list of questions that the story’s writer considers important.  

But even well-written acceptance criteria will tend to be functional, rather than qualitative.  Acceptance criteria are more about whether something is done than whether it is done well.  We don’t know if it was difficult or easy for the customer to do, or whether it took a lot of time or not.  And we never know for sure if satisfying what the customer wants will enable them to do what they ultimately are looking to accomplish.   

User stories and job stories provide a starting point for thinking about content details, but by themselves these approaches don’t reveal everything a writer will want to know to help the user realize their goals.

Specifying Context: Behavior Driven Design

Behavior driven design (BDD) is used in situations where content shapes how people complete a task.  BDD provides functional specifications that indicates a concrete scenario of the before and after state.  This approach can be helpful to someone working as a product content strategist or UX writer who needs to design flows and write content supporting customer transactions.  

The New York Times is one organization that uses BBD.  Let’s look at this example they’ve published to see how it works.  It is written in the Gherkin language, a computer programming language that is easy for non programmers to read.

Description: As a customer care advocate, I want to update a customer’s credit card on file, so that the customer’s new credit card will be charged during the next billing cycle.

 Scenario:     Change credit card with a valid credit card
     Given:     I have a customer with an existing credit card.
      When:     I enter a new valid credit card number.
      Then:     The service request is processed successfully.
       And:     I can see that the customer’s new card is on file.

 Scenario:     Change credit card with an invalid credit card number
      Given:    I have a customer with an existing credit card.
      When:     I enter a new credit card number that is not valid.
      Then:     An error shows that the credit card number is not valid

As the example shows, multiple scenarios may be associated with a larger situation.  The example presents a primary user (the customer care advocate) who is interacting with another party, a customer.  This level of contingent interaction can flush out many situations that could be missed.   Publishers should never assume that all the information that customers need is readily available, or that customers will necessarily be viewing information that is relevant to their specific situation.  Publishers benefit by listing different scenarios so they understand information requirements in terms of completeness, channel or device availability, and contextual variability.  So much content now depends on where you live, who you are, your transition history, customer status, etc.  BBD can help to structure the content that needs to be presented.

Content must support customer decision making. BDD provides a framework for thinking about what information customers have and lack relating to a decision.  Let’s consider how BDD could help us think about content relating to a  a hotel room.

ScenarioSome determinable user situation
Given some precondition (user knows where they want to holiday)
And some other precondition (user knows their budget)
When some action by the user(user visits travel options page)
And some other action (user compares hotel prices)
Then some testable outcome is achieved (user compares hotel prices)
And outcome we can check happens too(user books hotel)

This format allows the writer to think about variables addressed by content (decisions associated with hotel prices) and not be overwhelmed by larger or adjacent issues.  It can help the writer focus on potential hesitation by users when comparing and evaluating hotel prices.  If many users don’t compare the prices, something is obviously wrong. If many don’t book a hotel after checking prices, that also suggests issues.  BDD is designed to be testable.  But we don’t have deploy the design to test it.  Some basic guerrilla usability could flag issues with the content design.  These issues might be too much information (scary), missing information (also scary), or information revealed at the wrong moment (which can feel sneaky.)

I believe that BDD is better than JTBD when specifying the user’s situation and how that influences what they need to know.  We can use BDD to indicate: 

  • What knowledge the user knows already,
  • What decisions the user has already made

We can also indicate that more than one action could be necessary for the user to take.  And there may be more than one outcome.

The power of BDD is that it can help writers pin down more specific aspects of the design.

BDD obviously includes some assumptions about what the user will want to do and even how they will do it.  It may not be the approach to start with if you are designing a novel application or addressing a non-routine scenario.  But in situations were common behaviors and conventions are well known and understood, BDD can help plan content and diagnose that it is performing satisfactorily.

Specifying Performance Standards: Task analysis

Task analysis has been around longer than computers.  When I studied human computer interaction nearly two decades ago, I had to learn about task analysis.  Because it isn’t specific to computers, it can help us think how people use any kind of content.

A basic task analysis pattern would be:

  • Activity Verb
  • Performance standards (quantity/quality)
  • Mode

Here’s an example of a task from a review of task analysis.  The writer would need to add content to explain how to perform the task:

 To instruct the reader on how:

  • To make the nail flush …without damaging the surface of a piece of wood……using a hammer.

Design thinking purists might object that this example presupposes the use of a hammer to pound a nail.  Why not consider a shoe instead?  But the task assumes that certain tools will be used.  That’s a reasonable assumption in many scenarios.  If you are writing instructions on how to assemble a table or mend a shirt, you will assume the reader will need access to certain tools to perform the task.

Yet it is possible to change the mode.  There’s more than one way to wash windows without leaving a streak.  A person could use vinegar and a rag, or use an old newspaper.  If both methods were equally effective, the writer could compare how clearly and succinctly the instructions for each could be.  Remember: consuming the content is part of total work involved with completing a task.

What’s nice about the nail example is that it includes problems that the user might not be thinking about.  The user may just want to make the nail flush.  They may not be focused on how they might fail.  Content supporting the task can be tested with real people to determine if they misuse the tool — getting some unintended consequence.  In our complex world, there is plenty of scope for that to happen.  

Checking Quality

Writers are concerned that customers are successful.  There are many reasons why customers may not be.  Content needs to address a range of situations, and at the same time not be too burdensome to read, view or listen to.  Consuming content is part of the work associated with many tasks.  Content needs to facilitate completion of the task, and not detract from it.  

Much of the poor quality in design ultimately stems from bad assumptions.  Designs reflect bad assumptions about user goals, their knowledge, the information they have available, the decision they are prepared to make, and so on.  The three tools covered in this post can help writers to understand these issues more clearly, so that content created is better quality.

— Michael Andrews

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