Since January, I've been on a content outline streak. Two large higher ed sites and a smaller policy site are in the can, and now I'm moving on to another higher ed site. So, I thought I'd share a little bit about this deliverable.
What is a content outline?
Where I work, content outlines are the primary information architecture deliverable for the new or redesigned site. It's in outline format (0.0 Home, 1.0, 1.1, 1.1.1, 2.0, 2.1, etc.), and it becomes the supporting structure for the sitemap (the familiar boxes-and-lines rendering of an outline). Here, the information architect or copywriter combs through the existing source material, and working from the site's new strategy and goals, forms the written outline of pages.
Why do you need a content outline for your website?
The content outline is basically the Bible for the new, revised and old content on your site. Copywriters or editors will use the outline for guidance when revising and writing the new website. Generally, the content outline will capture at least the first three or four levels of the website's navigation, so that the project team can see where and how the majority of the site's content fits into the new structure. The goal is to have an intuitive home for all the content that has to be on the site.
Where does it fit in the process?
To put the website content outline in context, here's when it happens.
- Goals and strategy for the site have been identified, and any primary user research needed to inform the content architecture has taken place.
- An inventory of all the existing website content has been done. (To be honest, I think this step is wholly skippable.)
- Content outline time!
- Design, development, coding, testing, qa, etc.
Really, though, a content outline should be done any time you want to rework your site's content (or even a small section of content), independent of design or coding. It's a content thing.
How do you write a content outline?
So, you know whatever it is that you need to know about the strategy or goals of the site. Maybe you're just working on fixing a section of a site, and you know that you just need to repair the awful mess. That's a valuable goal. Or maybe you need to especially target an audience, or seek conversions, etc. Whatever it is, you're aware of it, and thus, you can begin.
Step 1: Immerse yourself in source material.
For sites with hundreds of pages, it's okay to spend a couple of days reading the site, particularly if you are unfamiliar with the project or the client. I find that coming into some sites is totally disorienting, like a bomb has gone off. As you click through the website, you'll notice wacky navigation schemes, hidden pockets of pages, wildly outdated pages and utterly confusing or contradictory text. This is totally overwhelming.
After hours of reading and poking around, you'll strangely begin to know where everything is and what exactly it is that you are working with.
At this point, any print materials you can get your hands on can be helpful. People seem to invest more time and money organizing and writing quality published material than they do for their web copy.
Step 2: Draft the top level navigation.
Once you've grown to understand the beast that is your project, jot down the main navigation labels--the big buckets. I'll use higher ed--let's say generic undergrad liberal arts college--as an example, since that's been on my brain lately.
3.0 Campus Life
4.0 Paying for College
7.0 Parents & Families
(various footer links)
Group them into sets if need be. Move things around. Give them new labels. Sketch out the homepage. Once you feel comfortable starting with what you have, move on.
Step 3: Fill it in with the ideal.
What I like to do next is fill out the next level from memory. So, I might say for 1.0 Admissions, I want a page for a checklist, a page for requirements, class profile, request information form, dates and deadlines, open houses/tours, etc. I do this rough sketch for every section, thinking more about the goals than the content that exists right now.
Step 4: Add in the reality.
Next, I start to pick through the source material and fill in the blanks. I make notes in the outline for combined pages, new copy, or stuff that is pretty good as-is. I write in ideas for the wireframes, if I have any, like "consider adding an event feed from the calendar." I note when I see a form, or when a new form is needed. I write basic descriptions for the page and suggestions for callouts.
By now, I've touched every page on the site several times, and I've officially become some kind of expert.
Step 5: Add some notes about your vision.
Corny as it seems, it helps to write an introduction to the outline where you clearly state what your guiding idea or plan was and highlight the major technique(s) you used to accomplish it. This is not about teaching best practices for writing for the web, but should be your rationale or approach. Include any major issues that you've identified and hope to address.
Step 6: Make a sitemap (if you need one), test it if you can, then relax.
You are now a subject matter expert!
In a nutshell...
A quality content outline expresses the vision for the new website. It sets expectations for how many pages and how much work is ahead. It's also the fundamental building block of a site...you've set the navigation and the IA, now writers can begin working on the content. You'll also have the exact navigation items needed for the design. From here, projects big or small, are off to a solid start.