We all love spaghetti — it’s fun to twirl on a fork and spool into your mouth. But do you know the expression “spaghetti code”? It’s a disparaging phrase programmers give to poor source code, that is twisted and tangled like a bowl of pasta. Corporate web content can easily become like spaghetti too, and that’s typically when content writers are called in to fix it.
This blog offers content designers and web writers a roll-your-sleeves-up method for untangling twisted content. It is particularly beneficial for digital content projects where timeframes, budgets and subject matter experts are under pressure.
The basic aim of this method is to separate each spaghetto from the unstructured heap. (Yes, that’s what a single piece of spaghetti is called.) Think of each spaghetto strand as a topic. Good web content follows the principle of one topic per web page. One of the key skills of a web writer is to know how to design discrete topics that stand alone, but also fit well together with related topics. Well-considered topic design results in better navigation and more user-focused content.
Essentially, a topic or single web page must be self-contained. One key reason is people can arrive from a search engine on any page of your site. Never assume visitors will enter from your homepage or a topic overview page. Unlike a book, people don’t begin their web journey with a nice table of contents to orientate themselves. That’s why each web page needs to make sense by itself, provide context by itself, and facilitate navigation to related topics.
A beautiful topic will give a target user what they need — the essentials and no more — a single web page on a procedure to follow; a policy to apply; a news item or event. It's the job of writers to link related but discrete topic pages to create a complete picture and a strong information scent to follow. Each page must act as a stepping stone that supports a self-guided user experience.
Stand-alone topics are easier for target users to find and follow. Stand-alone topics are also easier for you to:
Content discovery invariably means looking at existing content. You may do a content audit or inventory: documenting existing page titles and page metadata. Content audits will expose your current position, but they may not reveal inherent weaknesses in your existing topic design.
To assess the scale of your spaghetti problem, it is a valuable exercise to systematically pull your existing content apart, spaghetto by spaghetto, bit by bit. If your content is not literally thousands of pages, take the opportunity to get away from your computer and print the content out, and read it — all of it. (I’m surprised how often I encounter a project team who hasn’t actually read their existing content.) If you have a lot of content, print and read section by section.
As you read, use post-it notes (or inline comments) to group paragraphs into possible topics based on tasks. Work at pace. All the while, keep the user’s mission at the centre of your thinking: to complete a specific unique task, to understand the scope of a policy, to learn details about an event, etc.
Your paragraph analysis should isolate distinct topics, that are likely to move to separate pages. Where helpful, add additional notes about the status of a paragraph or set of paragraphs e.g. “irrelevant/remove”, “seems out of date”, “wordy”.
In a subsequent exercise, use post-it notes to plot out topics identified so far and consider how they relate to each other. Establish which topics are obviously missing. Ask what ought users do before this topic, and after this topic.
As part of the discovery phase, it definitely pays to look at other online and offline content sources — documents, reports, brochures, intranet pages, etc — that can help fill any topic gaps.
Keyword tools are useful for revealing which search terms people commonly use to find your topics. Keywords can inform topic scope and useful topic names.
Look at analytics for evidence of which pages are attracting visitors. Your analysis should reveal the reasons why a page is or isn’t performing well (too many topics on a page, no keywords, no unique purpose, etc). Analytics can also reveal which topics matter most to users. Make their top tasks your priority.
Sloppy content management contributes to the spaghetti problem. You’ll need to judge the state of your CMS templates, metadata, W3C accessibility and content management practices. Down the line, you must plug any recurring problems to prevent 'spaghettification' of future content releases.
This requires training web authors in W3C accessibility guidelines and proper template use.
The spaghetti-free method will help:
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