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Last month, Nick Robinson wrote a piece discussing the diminishing role of content today and suggested five things that have more impact on the success, or otherwise, of digital products. The post was a call to action for educational publishers to start thinking about more than content; that it is no longer the be-all and end-all of products in the digital age, and that unless you start focusing more on user experience, data, cost, access and choice, your businesses will fail. The comments on Nick’s post showed that a lot of people agreed, and indicated a significant need for improvement in this area among publishers and traditional content-driven organisations when making (digital) products.

But what about all the companies that already do focus on UX and data; the companies that are centred around technology and design? How high up the list of priorities is content in the world of start-ups and tech companies? The reality is that content is often overlooked or left until the last minute. In technology-driven companies, systems and experiences are often designed and built, and then words, instructions and content fill in the gaps, resulting in poor or confusing products that don’t capitalise on the great technology behind them.

This failure and unrealised potential could be avoided by companies shifting focus away from their core strength and setting up cross-functional teams that realise and push the value of both technology and content from day 1. Traditionally content-driven organisations should see the value of UX, data, new business models etc. (all the things mentioned in Nick’s post), and at the same time, traditionally tech-driven organisations and start-ups need to see the value of great content, copy, and communication, and make sure that they involve content teams as early as possible.

When content isn’t considered

Firstly, let’s look at some products where content has let the side down and poor quality has impacted negatively on the success of the business. We can see some examples in language-learning apps like Duolingo and busuu. Broadly speaking, these are both tech-driven organisations; they’re start-ups that operate in the education space but have no real background in education. In the early days of both products, this lack of educational underpinning really showed. A look though some of the original wordlists in busuu would bring a tear to the eye of anyone with any understanding of language education. And Duolingo was so well known for its farcical sentences that there is even a Twitter account to highlight some of the more ridiculous. It’s become common knowledge in the education world that these were companies that didn’t understand content – it was obvious. And, sooner or later the companies themselves (and their users) realised it too, but not before these products had been pretty much rejected by mainstream ELT. This rejection took the form of, at best, ambivalence and occasional outright hostility directed at the new start-ups. There was frustration amongst teaching professionals that learning experiences were being put together without what they saw as a necessary minimum of pedagogical underpinning. Whether this rejection had any materially adverse effect on the startups is harder to tell, but it definitely meant that there was a lack of engagement between the companies and communities of people that could have helped make their products better tools for learning.

Things are getting much better now, and both of these companies have been through changes which suggest content and pedagogy now play a more important role. Busuu recently saw investment from educational publisher McGraw-Hill Education, and have recently hired a Head of Education with a strong educational pedigree and industry knowledge. While it is still early days there are suggestions that this will result in a firmer focus on how the educational aspects of the product impact learning. And, interestingly, whilst the aforementioned ‘S*** Duolingo Says’ Twitter feed used to be full of sentences like ‘Your bear drinks beer’ and ‘The turtle eats bread’, there are now sentences which seem to have been informed by some form of web scraping to get authentic content such as ‘Is there space in your sleeping bag?’. So while this is still quite odd, it’s a clear step in the right direction in terms of a content focus.

The lack of focus on content extends into other industries too. In the world of content marketing and advertising, it is often stated that high quality content is a key factor, yet despite this, according to an Acrolinx report, some 70% of websites and brands are creating content that is grammatically inaccurate and isn’t ‘stylistically sound’. Brafton (a content marketing company who admittedly sell quality content) say that this is having a negative impact on these businesses and how they are perceived. Sloppy content that is tacked on at the end of a build, or added to a website to optimise for search engine ranking will end up having a negative impact on rank, give people a bad impression, make the site difficult to navigate and have a negative impact on the success of the business.

Shawn Cheatham is a technologist who helps companies create innovative products and services; he agrees that content is often an afterthought and points to the importance of making sure that the emails and content that we send to customers and users are high quality and of value. He says that very often

‘Product development teams overlook … what we commonly refer to as ‘transactional notifications’. The very way in which we refer to them as ’transactional’ says it all. They’re most often an afterthought and not seen as altogether important. Instead, a large amount of time is spent on button clicks, swipes and interactions…but without engaging email communication, no one is going to see the functional glitter and sparkle.’

We can see then that companies that don’t bring content into the process early are likely to suffer as a result further down the line. And this is affecting companies and organisations in all industries. But what happens when this is not the case?

When content is considered

By making sure that content and copy aren’t an afterthought, we give the impression of products and services ‘created for people, by people’, and that’s what people respond to best. Products like airbnb and x.ai are doing a great job of this, and you can see from their products that the way that they interact with users and the copy and content they use to bring about certain behaviours is well thought through, powerful and effective.

Another example of great content integration is language learning product, Newsmart – a product that adds a layer of learning content to articles from The Wall Street Journal. ELTjam formed part of the original, core product team on Newsmart for the creation of the MVP, joining team members from design, engineering, marketing and product management. This highlighted a philosophy towards content in the product; it was to be a core part of the product experience, not an afterthought. As a result, Newsmart is a product that has been recognised for its quality, both educationally and in terms of the product and the experience, winning the David Riley award and getting nominated for an ELTon in the product’s first year, while also getting a decent number of upvotes and positive comments on product websites like Product Hunt. Without the high-quality news articles and the great work that the education team do on them, the product would be less educationally effective and much less successful commercially.

Setting up a Product Focus

How do we get to a situation where there is a more productive balance between the different elements of a product? What steps can be taken to make sure that we end up with the best products for our users? My suggestion would be to not think of one component as being the highest priority but to start thinking instead about partnerships between content, user experience, technology, data, etc. This is true for traditional educational publishers and new start-ups alike. The role of content should be involved from the outset, as should UX, technology, data and so on.

Practically, what might this look like?

  1. Think about all aspects from the start. Make sure that content, user experience and technology all get their say in the way that a product is set up and built. This will lay the foundation for a great product. Bringing together people from all these departments right at the start and working through the main vision and goals of the product (who might use it, the problems it solves etc.) helps to get everyone on the same page, with a shared understanding from the outset. This is something we do when we run product development workshops with our clients and it works really well.
  1. Source people who know what they’re doing in each area and who have great credentials. This may seem obvious but we often see companies not looking beyond their own walls to bring in UX, technology, content or pedagogy expertise, and making do with what they already have access to. But if you can’t bring in people from the outside, try to bring some of the shared knowledge from those industries into your own teams by ensuring that staff are getting training and development, going to meetup events, doing courses and sharing that knowledge internally.
  1. Source people who understand each other. This may be even more important than point #2. Content people with product management and UX knowledge are far more valuable to your business than those without, and the same is true of product managers and UX people who understand content and its value. It makes communication easier, helps generate a sense of shared direction, and means that differences are more easily overcome.
  1. Work in an agile way: build, measure, learn. So often, content is created in large batches with long wait times before it’s integrated and seen in a live environment, and this massively increases the risk. Far better to work on small batches of content and copy, learn from any results, then implement improvements for the next batch. Creating a constantly updated style guide or editorial formula will ensure that all content work feeds into creating something that will save time down the line.

This early integration of content is especially key when thinking about learning experiences, but is also hugely important for any business or organisation that deals in the exchange or transfer of information. By sidelining any of these elements, products will have less chance of success. By integrating them early, you set up product development in a way that increases the chances of a product  resonating with people and growing to have impact and value. So while I wouldn’t in any way disagree with Nick that there are other things to consider than content, I would argue that the way that we integrate these different elements into products from the outset is more important than any one of them individually. This will move us past the point where tech-driven companies are producing products with poor content and content-driven companies are struggling to present that content in a meaningful way. What we need is more product-driven organisations that realise the importance of all the skills and knowledge that make a product great.

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