It’s romantic to think that content work is an art, all brandy, pipes, and wood grain. But it’s not. It’s a process. A messy, sticky, multi-disciplinary process that begs for structure, consistency, and guidance.

That’s a daunting task. Content wants to be messy. It wants to roll around in the mud. It wants to be gross. Our job is to pull it together—to take the guesswork out of creating and curating it—and to treat content work as something closer to a science.

There’s always been a need for methodology in content. From the invention of written language to the printing press, our communication processes have been codified. Sometimes, that codification takes a long time: the march from Gutenberg’s original printing press to Richard March Hoe’s rotary press took 400 years. Now, we need to create new methodologies in days.

But we can’t slap a rigid structure on our processes and expect them to work. In our field, there’s no single set of rules, and there’s no progress without a little bit of guessing and testing. There’s room for wiggling. But before we can wiggle, we need to know how much space we’ve got to wiggle in.

Methodology: A Definition

In strictly academic terms, a methodology is the formal documentation—whether on paper or in your head—of a set of processes for a given field. The classic example of a methodology is the scientific method:

  1. Ask a question
  2. Research the question
  3. Form a hypothesis
  4. Test the hypothesis
  5. Communicate the findings or change the hypothesis

We often mistake processes for methodologies. Think of it this way: processes—the steps you take—are like the directions in a recipe. They give you structure and lead you toward a result. They tell you to let the dough rise now, form a boule, and bake for 45 minutes. The methodology combines those steps with a deeper purpose, providing you—and your clients, and your partners, and anyone who comes in contact with you—the why to your recipe’s how.

This combination of processes and reason gives us a working blueprint with which to dive into any project. The exact format your methodology takes is yours and yours alone, but the essential form is consistent: a chronological map of what it means to do your work. It could be a list of tasks and their justifications. It could be a checklist. It could be a book.

Regardless of the format, your methodology should lead you through any point in the progress by answering two constant questions: what comes next and why are we doing it?

Why Methodologies Matter

First off, a methodology gives you a cheat sheet to explain how you work. Knowing what steps you’ll need to take—and having them written out in a formal document—provides you with a packaged, easily adapted explanation of what exactly it is that you do. For contractors or consultants, this is crucial for writing proposals: content work is largely abstract and clients want to know where their money is going. But even if you’re not pitching clients, the people you work for and with will appreciate knowing why you do what you do.

Once the project has begun, methodologies promote consistency with clients and team members. There is no more guesswork: step one, we meet; step two, we brainstorm; step three, we prototype. A methodology gives your client (or employers) confidence that you know what you’re doing and helps partners understand their role throughout the process.

Finally, your methodology keeps you honest. We’re humans, and humans like to skip things. With each step explicitly outlined, you can better decide which steps to skip. You can refer back to the methodology when you’re questioning your process, too. It’s a custom-designed lifeboat when you’re in over your head, that’s more valuable than any book or blog.

Ultimately, a methodology provides structure and legitimacy. It provides an argument for why That Thing You Do is worth attention and respect, which in turn allows you to present your skills in a way that instills trust. Otherwise, as Stephen Lamble mentions in his article “Documenting the Methodology of Journalism,” a deficient or apparently deficient methodology leaves your work vulnerable to attack. On the subject of the contents of a journalism methodology, Lamble writes:

That list of elements should relate to the specialist language and culture of journalism. It would include (but not be limited to) essential joumalistic words and concepts such as: balanced, fair and accurate accounts of events; adherence to ethical standards; news values; research and investigation; seeking truth and providing a contextual interpretive framework by attempting to answer who, what, when, where, why and how; reporting and storytelling through text, narrative and images; good writing; legal awareness; historic perspective; political awareness; information, education and entertainment; objectivity; public interest; and public benefit.

At the design agency where I work, our content strategy methodology has become a full member of the team, keeping us in check and giving us easy access to answers for our clients and developers. When I need to remind a client—or myself—what we’re doing next and why, I simply pull out the content strategy methodology document, adapt and excerpt it as needed, and send it off in an email.

Methodologies Are Personal

There’s just one problem with all of this: a methodology can’t simply be plucked out of thin air. You can’t just find your methodology. You can find someone else’s methodology, but it probably won’t work for you. And especially if you’re doing something relatively new, it shouldn’t work for you—at least, not in the form in which it has been presented elsewhere.

The example I like to use is how I’ve adapted Margot Bloomstein’s Message Matters presentation. At its core, Margot uses an adapted card sort to help determine a client’s message architecture—the hierarchy of their communication goals and how they should be communicated. Instead of sorting concepts, Margot sorts characteristics and tones.

The first time I performed Margot’s card sort, it went swimmingly. Until I presented my findings. Where I provided a list of message characteristics and tone suggestions, the client expected a literal message hierarchy, with full communications goals. In my context—with this client—there was confusion on the name of the process itself. I used Margot’s card sort without regard to my situation and position in the client relationship. I screwed up.

Next time I tried the card sort, I told the client we were helping develop a “tone hierarchy.” It made sense to them. And thus I had stolen and adapted Margot’s card sort for my personal methodology.

Great. So How Do I Do It?

There are three main steps.

One: Make a List

Write down all the things that you’re expected to do. If you’re having trouble thinking of everything, that’s okay. This process takes time, and you’ll have a chance to fill in the holes later.

Two: Organize It

With all your tasks laid out in front of you, you’ll begin seeing natural breaks that represent phases of the project. For help organizing your tasks and processes into an appropriate order, look at other methodologies from your field, and from other content-related fields, like the ones listed here.

Content strategy:

Copywriting/marketing:

Editorial:

Information architecture:

Don’t see your favorite methodology here? Add it to the comments. We’d all love some help stealing from each other. The best discoveries often come from learning from other practices.

Three: Flesh It Out

As mentioned before, the goal of a methodology is to provide reason and consistency to the things we do. So expand on your list by answering these questions:

  • What is the goal of this phase (or deliverable or event)?
  • Why have we placed this phase/deliverable/event at this part of the methodology?
  • What is the expected outcome for this phase/deliverable/event?
  • What resources have we borrowed from for this phase/deliverable/event?

“Wait,” you may ask. “Do I really need to write it down?”

Yeah. You should. You don’t need to, I guess, but writing it down makes your methodology more concrete. Content strategist Clinton Forry started his blog, Content-ment, as a way to write down his processes and discoveries. The blog gradually became an exercise in brainstorming. “The very act of writing these things down in a coherent fashion sparks even more ideas,” Clinton says.

With your processes and justifications written out, you’ll get a good snapshot of just what it is you’re supposed to be doing. But it’s not complete. Not yet.

You’re Never Not Changing

Jeffrey MacIntyre says, “The first time I put together a content strategy methodology, it was akin to a galactic gap analysis.” He explained that creating a methodology from nearly five years spent collecting ideas from former employers, conferences, and the internet allowed him to visualize not only what he did, but also to see which areas needed work—whether that meant expanding his own practice or finding partners and consultants who could help him.

The initial creation of a methodology may only take a piece of paper and a good chunk of time, but it’s the adaptation and enrichment of the methodology that provides the biggest benefit. And that takes equal parts attention, prediction, and experience.

Adaptation via Attention

Stealing from others means more than just saving a blog post for later. It means taking entire concepts and dropping them into the holes in your methodology. This is especially helpful for those moving into a new practice, or shifting from an agency setting to an individual consultancy—or anyone who’s bringing already-developed opinions and processes to a different area of the content map.

Throughout this article, there are links to people I’ve borrowed, pilfered and stolen from. In addition to those two, the first phases of our CS methodology includes snippets from and links to:

Also:

  • Erik Peterson’s The Big Book of Key Performance Indicators
  • James Robertson’s Designing Intranets
  • Peter Morville and Louis Rosenfeld’s Information Architecture for the World Wide Web
  • Heather Hedden’s The Accidental Taxonomist
  • Dan Roam’s The Back of the Napkin

There are too many great resources to list in one article—and that’s the point I’m trying to make here. We’ve found that it’s best to gather a lot of information and use a little bit of everything. You may also notice that this list isn’t just a bunch of content-strategy-specific resources, either. We’ve tried to cast a net over the entire user experience field, and beyond.

And that’s just the stuff I’ve saved and integrated. There are even more from which I’ve snuck bits and pieces. For example, Tiffani Jones Brown’s “Making Things Hard” shaped a large part of our discovery session, though few of her questions still exist in their original form. The same goes for our process of determining client audiences and outcomes, which began from a small paragraph in C. David Gammel‘s book Online and On Mission. We expanded it by working with David on two projects, and the methodology has since evolved to the point that David might no longer recognize it.

Find the book about your field—probably the one named “An Introduction to [Your Field]“—and steal from it. Go to conferences and steal from the presenters. Follow industry leaders on Twitter and steal from them. Then, follow the links they give and steal from those. Read things from different content areas. Read things from different industries altogether. Steal widely and well, cite your sources when it’s appropriate, and adapt the ideas you’ve found to suit your own work.

While you’re at it, let your sources know you’re stealing from them. Want to see more great ideas? Tell that person how much those great ideas mean to you.

Adaptation via Prediction

Adapting a methodology requires an eye to the future and a bit of clairvoyance.

Before each project, look at your methodology and determine if you’ll need something more than what you’re already offering. For example, maybe you’ve never worked on a project that depends on mobile technology. If you make the rather safe prediction that mobile is going to be a thing in the future, you may want to begin adding mobile-friendly processes to your methodology.

Adaptation via Experience

According to University of Exeter professor Andy Wills’s study on predictive learning, we learn more rapidly from incorrect predictions than from correct ones. Our mistakes are lessons, without which we could never determine the benefits of tweaking our processes. In other words: mistakes are good. Make them, and make them often.

At our agency, we determined early on that content analysis—which we were doing as a part of our initial content inventory/audit process—was impossible to do well without knowing who our audiences were and what they were expecting from the sites we designed. We didn’t change any of the processes—we simply pulled the content analysis out and moved it to the end of the discovery phase, when we were better able to get a grip on site users and their needs.

This example highlights the need to constantly evaluate your methodology and be willing to change when things don’t go the way they should. Nothing kills a useful methodology like a stubborn, inflexible creator.

Go Forth and Methodolog-ize

We no longer have the luxury of fine-tuning our processes by making 400 years’ worth of mistakes. One person cannot make enough mistakes to shift the collective process. We must make mistakes together.

We are not the first to do what we’re doing, and we won’t be the last. It’s up to us to make things better, for ourselves and others.