The wise Ginny Redish once said, “Too many usability tests focus only on finding information—not on how the information itself works for people.” Amen. But, why is testing whether content works for people a good idea? Why is it worth spending time and money? Let’s look at five reasons why.
With content, many results take time to achieve. Domain authority doesn’t happen overnight. Attracting more qualified sales leads doesn’t happen in an instant. Changing perceptions of your brand takes longer than a blink of the eye. In the meantime, you need to involve your team or your client in progress. Why? To build and sustain your momentum. The Progress Principle explains a multi-year research study of work and momentum. Researchers Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer note that
OF ALL THE EVENTS THAT CAN DEEPLY ENGAGE PEOPLE IN THEIR JOBS, THE SINGLE MOST IMPORTANT IS MAKING PROGRESS IN MEANINGFUL WORK.
Testing your content will show meaningful progress—and help people feel that progress—before you get those long term results. For example, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) tested their current approach to Traveler’s Health content against a new concept. The concept tested far better with users. That testing helped CDC’s Kelly Holton rally support for “reimagining” the approach to content. And, of course, that saves costs on delays, extra communication, lack of productivity, and similar quagmires of large projects.
When you test content, you gain valuable insights about your users or customers, your products or services, your brand, and, of course, the content. If you keep those insights, you can apply them to other projects and other content decisions. You don’t have to test the same thing over and over again. One of my clients kept their testing insights in “The Big Book of Knowledge.” Whenever a new project or big decision came up, the client could check the book for insights from similar projects or decisions in the past.
It’s tough to solve problems if you don’t know why they’re happening. When you detect a problem with your website, mobile site, or another part of your online presence, testing content can help you diagnose the problem. And, then, you can figure out how to solve it. For example, University of Georgia’s Terry College of Business tested their MBA content to understand why it wasn’t as compelling as it could be. One of their discoveries was that the difference between their three MBA programs was unclear to prospective students. That finding led Terry to clarify the differences between the programs. If UGA gains even one more student thanks to the clarified content, that will more than pay for the testing.
In response to testing content, I’ve never, ever heard anyone say, “Gee, I really learned nothing new here.” For example, at Cingular Wireless many years ago, my team’s testing of My Account (the account management area of Cingular.com) led to simple but effective content improvements. That testing cost, what, maybe $50,000? And the return on those improvements across 50 million customers was mind boggling.
You would not put out a product, service, or idea without testing it, right? It would be irresponsible to your customers and very risky to your business or organization. We share space with the leading health footwear retailer FootSmart. We see prototypes of new FootSmart-brand comfort shoes all the time. FootSmart tests those shoes at every step (forgive the pun) of their creation. Why? Because the risk of putting out an unsatisfactory product is too great.
In the same way, putting out a new approach to content on a large scale without testing it is irresponsible and risky. CDC has tested each redesign of CDC.gov. As another example, The New York Times has created a permanent beta area called Test Drive, where users test the media giant’s new ideas before the media giant unleashes those ideas on everyone else.
Am I saying test every bit of content? No. While you can’t test all content, you can test big ideas, major decisions, and huge changes in direction. For example, we advised a health media startup on a methodology for developing and testing tone. Tone is a big decision that affects all content. If you get tone wrong, you risk being unappealing to the audience and undifferentiated from competition. Is that a risk worth taking?
When you form a content and user experience strategy, you make big decisions about content tone, message, topics, architecture, and more that you and your users have to live with for a long time. Really, the question is can you afford not to test those decisions?
Of course, testing content is only the tip of the iceberg for evaluating whether your content works for people and, if not, how to adjust it. With survey mechanisms, multichannel analytics, search analytics, customer data, and more at our disposal, we have the power to understand when our content works and when it doesn’t. But, we can’t use that power if we don’t take time to assess, interpret, and form insights.
To help you plan for the power of content testing and evaluation, here are a few resources from me and other people who think about the topic.
Originally published on the now-archived Content Science blog in July 2012.
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