The most frequently told story in my youth, hands-down, was the time my dad and his best friend ran away from home on the Vespa scooter, scoot scooting their way from Brooklyn to California. In Arizona, my father grabbed a flight to LA and left the scooter with Lanny, who proceeded to crash it into a Greyhound bus. Lanny survived (he still tells me Michael stories via email when he thinks of them), but he never did make it to California.

Left photo shows my dad sitting on a Vespa with a duffel bag across the front and his best friend sitting behind him. Right photo shows their lean-to tent strapped to some trees on the side of a dusty road.
My father (left, front) and Lanny (back) on the road.

The last time Lanny told me this story, it occurred to me: most of us keep our eyes pinned to the road immediately in front of us. Or we focus on the rear-view mirror, spinning our wheels over past experiences. But this tendency means we’re tuning out our peripheral vision.

Peripheral vision, though, is what gives us context. It’s how we notice the unexpected sneaking up on us, the Greyhound bus drifting over the yellow line into our path. Spend too much time focusing only on what’s in front of you, and you lose sight of that stuff. The next thing you know, you’re running into a bus on a Vespa scooter while your best friend basks in the LA sunshine.

White-knuckling it with your hands at ten and two

Loosening your grip long enough to take in the landscape isn’t always comfortable. It feels counterintuitive. Why spend so much time auditing a website we already know is broken? Why interview people who aren’t even using our app or programming yet? It feels like busy work. We don’t have time for this—we’ve got to get the new site up!

This obsessive focus on moving quickly is understandable. There‘s so much reverence for the “agile” mentality of “move fast and break things.” It’s easy to get caught up and mistake it for “don’t do the due diligence that feels like busy work.” Shortcuts now can hurt you in the long run, though. Raise your hand if you’ve learned this the hard way; I promise I won’t judge.

Boeing’s grounded 737 Max airplane may be the most visible example of what can happen when we rush to launch. Engineers “were pushed to submit technical drawings and designs at roughly double the normal pace,” according to the New York Times.

Screenshot of New York Times headline reading "Boeing was 'Go, Go, Go' to beat Airbus with the 737 Max." Includes large photo of a 737 on the tarmac against a dark blue sky.
The 737 Max is what happens when you don’t make the time for due diligence.

“A technician who assembles wiring on the Max said that in the first months of development, rushed designers were delivering sloppy blueprints to him. He was told that the instructions for the wiring would be cleaned up later in the process…His internal assembly designs for the Max, he said, still include omissions today.”

Sure, sure: your team isn’t building airplanes. But that may be why due diligence is even more critical for you. I’m guessing you don’t have the budget to survive a full grounding—to completely redesign your website or rewrite your entire interface should it turn out this isn’t really what your audience wants, after all. No; you probably want to set yourself up for success from the very beginning.

What does content due diligence look like?

How you handle this depends on what communities you serve, of course, and what your specific goals are. For most of my clients, content due diligence takes two main forms: a content diagnosis (such as benchmarking, content auditing, and user testing), and user research. While most folks will work with an external partner to help them, these are both activities that can be done internally by pretty much any team able to prioritize them. So there’s no excuse not to.

Looking inward: diagnosing your own content

When we talk about content due diligence, most of us think of the conventional content audit. Audits are actually pretty easy to do without any specialized expertise. It starts with putting together a laundry list of all the content on your website (or in your app), along with a bunch of statistics and data points for each item. You then evaluate everything against various criteria. The criteria should change based on your strategic goals, and the output allows you to identify important patterns, gaps, and opportunities for improvement and alignment.

Screenshot of Jess Sand's content audit scorecard, which shows several categories and ratings columns.
My diagnostic content audit scorecard allows me to easily customize audits for each client.

A quick Google search will turn up plenty of tutorials that typically focus on ROT (redundant, outdated, trivial) criteria. The problem with ROT is that, while helpful at a basic level, these criteria can be subjective. They’re also not at all comprehensive. ROT doesn’t catch issues like whether or not a page is usable or accessible, for example.

User testing is another way to diagnose problems with your content. This can take many different forms: tree testing, closed card sorting, highlighter testing, and task testing are common approaches. Each reveals different things about your content and can be scaled up or down depending on your your budget and timeline. While a diagnostic audit can identify inconsistencies with your navigation menu, for example, something like tree testing can tell you which menu labels are particularly hard for visitors to understand. Watching actual humans outside of our organization interact with our content and hearing them talk about their own perceptions, needs, and concerns—in their own voices—can provide mind-blowing insights into whether our content is hitting the mark or not. It can tell us where, how, and why people are tripping up.  In other words, user testing provides depth and context to our diagnostic work.

Content audits and user testing are really good for benchmarking your content before kicking off a big change initiative or redesign. I strongly urge clients to factor in some time and budget to the early stage of project planning specifically for this kind of benchmarking. Even better is to do it throughout the year. It’s so valuable in uncovering hidden issues. And it’s the only way to measure whether or not your efforts are paying off. If you don’t know the state of your content now (“it’s a mess!” isn’t good enough here), you’ll have no way of quantifying how much it’s improved later. The bonus is that an up-front investment in content diagnosis and benchmarking almost always pays off throughout the life cycle of your project. It also makes you look like a genius when you can present cold, hard numbers that demonstrate your changes were successful.

Looking outward: your audience

On the flip side, user research complements the inward-looking content audit by shifting our peripheral vision outward. Where diagnosis and benchmarking can tell us what is and isn’t working in great detail, user research drills into why its not working and how we might fix it. It adds depth and context to our diagnostic work.

Hands up if you feel like you have a pretty good grasp on the audiences you serve. You can probably list off a host of descriptors and demographics. Maybe you even have some audience profiles or personas. The thing is, unless you’ve actually watched, listened, and questioned the people interacting with your conten, you’re really taking a best guess. You’re making an assumption that the experience you’ve created—the way you’ve grouped content on your site, the language you’ve used in navigation menus, the categories of topics you’ve created—are going to be familiar and understandable to visitors. It’s amazing how much our own personal lens can color our design decisions.

But what if you’re not quite right? Our audience’s mental model always prevails in the end; either they embrace our content or they ignore it. User research helps us understand those mental models, our users’ expectations and the language they use.

So why don’t we do our digital due diligence?

By far the most common excuses for avoiding user research and testing are time and money (and our own arrogance belief that our assumptions about our audience are correct). This is a terrible excuse, though.

Graph showing that the number of design changes decreases as the cost of changes increases over the course of development, which is why content due diligence is so important..
The further you get into production, the more costly changes become.

The reality is that it’s a hell of a lot cheaper to uncover problems early—before we’ve locked ourselves into decisions, designs, code, and especially office politics. If you don’t believe me (or the research), feel free to ask the former CEO of Boeing.

How will you survive the Greyhound bus 737 Max in your path?

It doesn’t matter whether your organization is trying to save us from climate change, develop new economic systems, or disrupt the space-time continuum. We all share a common goal: we want our efforts to be effective. My argument, ultimately, is that to be effective—to accomplish our organization’s long-term mission—we need to stop focusing on the shiny distractions directly in front of us and start using our peripheral vision. Content due diligence is a strategy.

So, answer me this: what’s currently distracting you from the oncoming bus? What’s eating up all your time and attention? What do you see when you shift your gaze from the road immediately in front of you to what lies on the horizon in six months, at the end of the year, in 2-5 years? 2020 is young yet—let’s make some plans.

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