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The content testing ground

At CS Applied last month, Rahel Bailie held a workshop where she explained the work she has been doing on the City of Vancouver’s web site. She outlined a triage approach to content auditing: what to keep, what to discard, and what needed reworking.

The model is beautifully simple. And if done right – with sign-off from the powers – it provides a perfect tool with which to test new content people come up with. Anything that fails the test would not have survived the original triage, so should not make it onto the site.

The four levels of the value proposition

Content Heaven Gatekeeper


What is the goal of your site? What are its goals? This is described in lofty terms; it is board-speak. It may be to sell more product, to service a community or to provide thought leadership. This is the answer to the Why of your site’s existence. It is not interested in implementation or approach; it cares only for concepts.


To achieve a goal, one needs objectives. Objectives are the answer to “What?” Every goal should be supported by a handful of objectives. Maybe just one; maybe half a dozen (it depends on the size of the team supporting the goals). Too many objectives means your effort is likely too thinly spread. Every objective needs to be tested in the cold light of reality: does it truly support the goal. Importantly, if the described “objective” is an action rather than a measurable accomplishment, it is too fine-grained and does not fit at the objective level.


The third layer is the activity – of your target audience, not you. This is what people need to do for you to achieve the stated objectives, which will fulfil the goals. Again, each objective will have a few associated activities. And yes, sometimes activities will support multiple objectives, even related to different goal. The Agile-style story phrasing is very useful here: “as a [something], I want to [do whatever].” If the phrasing is not serving the user’s own interests – “as the customer, I want to buy your stuff” – then the stated activity is wrong. The customer wants to help themselves, not you. The concerned citizen does not want to study the details of some environmental contamination; they want to know the direct danger to them, and direct actions they can take.

There are two filters on the activity: that it really supports the objective, and that it serves the user’s self-interests. This is the How.

Supporting content

The previous three layers create for us a sieve: an obstacle course that content must be able to traverse to remain on your web site. For each individual element of content, test it against this grid. Does the content facilitate an activity, in order to achieve an objective, which will fulfil a goal? If not, chuck it out (those that are close can be kept aside and dealt with separately, improved and retested).

Built in gap analysis

If you build up this list of goals, objectives and activities against which to prove your content, you will have done two things for the price of one: you will have a solid, management-sanctioned filter with which to identify whether any existing element of content is belongs on your site. Secondly, having analysed your existing content pool, you will see which activities, objectives and goals do not have the content they need.

Testing for tomorrow

Another way your content can be tested against this filter is with tomorrow in mind (or next month, year, etc.) At various arbitrary points in the future, will the content still be relevant? Will it still satisfy the test: support an activity? Once the objective is achieved, how will the activities remain relevant? What will need to happen to the content related to them? (We have all seen companies who think an ad campaign from 5 years ago was so wonderful that they need to keep the video/images on their web site, even though the product is so outdated they no longer support it.)

Test your content not only against the immediate state of your specified goals, objectives and activities, but also against the evolution of these. It will tell you when your content needs to be removed, or at least reviewed.

New content

Once you have applied this filter to your existing site, any new content that someone wants must likewise pass the same test. It does not matter who thinks it is important: if the new content will not facilitate a user activity, to enable achievement of an objective that fulfils a board-approved goal, it doesn’t get a foot in the door.

If it’s not serving your purpose…

If content on your site is not serving your purpose – if it is not working towards the accomplishment of a goal… just what is it doing? For you? To you?

It’s well past time to get rid of any rotting content that is working against your goals.

Reference links

Rahel Bailie – @rahelab, Intentional Design
Gatekeeper, by Chris Shipton@ChrisShipton
Content Strategy Applied 2012 in review


One response to “The content testing ground

  1. stevegrange 2012/05/02 at 07:20

    An extremely useful article and it’s great to hear Rahel talking about this model. I recently visited City of Vancouver on a learning exchange from the UK and back here we need to look at our content and this model will be used extensively. I’m getting the buy-in from the powers at the moment but I’ll shortly (I assume) start defining the goals/objectives/activities and managing change.

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