Why UX has fundamentally changed content's winners and losers

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed February 18, 2016
My last piece on rethinking content strategy left some key loose ends. One of them is how UX and mobile have completely changed the content landscape. How should enterprises respond?

My last piece on content strategy struck a social chord, which was a nice consolation for the pungent journey into my own wrongness. To review: great content no longer gets it done; "If you build it, they will come" is an oversimplification at best. For the individual or small business, building your own blog might even be a bad idea. I never would have said that a few years ago.

I argued that winning B2B content now requires four attributes:

  1. quality/relevance – quality still beats quantity most of the time.
  2. distribution/platform – content on a popular platform has a huge head start.
  3. user experience (UX) – ease of content consumption, particularly on mobile devices, is becoming a content dealbreaker.
  4. engagement – true engagement – meaning interactions and action steps provoked by the content – is the ultimate differentiator.

It's time to dig into number three - why UX has become a content deal breaker. Before I do that, a word to those who pinged me with questions. My last piece was intentionally non-prescriptive. I laid out the problems without offering solutions. That's because individuals and brands face different content dilemmas.

For the record, I don't believe brands should surrender content control to social platforms. I still advise building your own content hub (web site) and community. It's far too risky to bet on social networks as a primary content platform. It's also an unacceptable concession for search visibility, lead conversion, and community development.

The four components of effective B2B content play out differently for brands. Yes, engagement is the goal for both brands and individuals. But for the individual, the content journey via so-called "thought leadership" is a big part of why content matters. For brands, if you engage your constituents, it doesn't matter how you pulled it off, whether it was content, a skillfully designed app, putting butts in seats at an event, and so on. Content, in whatever media form it might take, is just one path to engagement. Which brings us to UX.

The ubiquity of mobile has forever altered the content game

The ubiquity of mobile obscures how different the pursuit of attention used to be. The picture is brutally clear for Iranian Hossein Derakhshan, who spent five years in an Iran prison for blogging and came back to a radically different world. His piece, Iran's blogfather: Facebook, Instagram and Twitter are killing the web, is a jolt for those with ideals about a literate blogging network changing the world.

Derakhshan bemoans the shift from the golden age of the hyperlink. He believes a passionate exchange of ideas has given way to a social popularity contest on the one hand, and passive consumption of streaming entertainment on the other. Whether we agree with his existential howl, Derakhshan is correct to finger the smart phone as a fundamental driver. When he was imprisoned in 2008:

The iPhone was a little over a year old, but smartphones were still mostly used to make phone calls and send short messages, handle emails, and surf the web. There were no real apps, certainly not how we think of them today. There was no Instagram, no SnapChat, WhatsApp. Instead, there was the web, and on the web, there were blogs: the best place to find alternative thoughts, news and analysis. They were my life.

But mobile has done more than diminish the network of hyperlinks. (at diginomica, we still cherish the outward link, and hope you are on board with that!). Six years ago, content was on a (more) level UX playing field:

  • If you had great content on your web page, people blogged about it and shared it, whether it was a Wordpress blog or a major news site.
  • There was a fairly level design field - unless you posted cryptic fonts on black background, it was not about the web page. As long as the content mattered, the presentation was an afterthought.

Today, UX plays a huge role in which content is consumed, and which dies on the vine. A crappy UX or a bad app results in poor content visibility. My colleague Den Howlett, who led the charge on our latest digimomica facelift, swears by Dave Pell's curated daily news, NextDraft. It's pretty clever stuff, but it made a limited impression on me via email. However, the NextDraft app was another matter: the ease of scrolling and simplicity of design turns Pell's short-form content into hot buttered popcorn for peeps on the go.

I've seen similar successes on FlipBoard, which has become one of diginomica's most popular referral sources outside of the big social networks - even through we have no dedicated FlipBoard channel at this time.

On the consumer side, Netflix is an interesting example. I gravitate towards Netflix even when I have better content choices on other platforms, simply because their mobile streaming is vastly more reliable. Crappy/failed streams are a hotel headache I don't need after a punishing travel day. That doesn't get Netflix off the hook on content quality/choice, but their UX is a big leg up.

Enterprise UX isn't mobile-only, it's seamless across devices

Enterprises need to think about mobile differently. While Facebook or Buzzfeed's visitors lean heavily towards mobile, enterprise content needs to serve desktop/laptop/tablet AND smart phones. The winner here is elegant, mobile-first designs that sync easily between platforms. The reason I consume so much content inside of my Newsblur newsreader is not because I dig their mobile app, but because the effortless sync between mobile and desktop makes organizing my feeds super easy.

Slack is another potent example I've had run-ins with. I was dealing with one large community project, a migration to a platform this community has a distaste for. An informal creation of a Slack channel quickly took hold. One core member said, "Finally, a way to connect with all of you so easily on my phone." My own Slack projects are increasing, and not because Slack is a beautiful UX interface - it's really not. But Slack got the UX of moving from desktop to mobile and back again just right - not to mention finely-tuned notification controls.

I'm not the only one banging drums for multi-device UX. In usertesting.com's third annual industry UX survey, they asked 7,725 professionals about how their companies handled UX in 2015, covering topics spanning from budget allocations to usability testing:


Image from usertesting.com's UX survey

Multi-device interaction has been the survey's top answer for the past three years, and that's not even including the many votes for omnichannel design. As Hannah Alvarez of usertesting.com writes:

Companies are racing to provide a seamless user experience from mobile to desktop to smartwatch and beyond. And it’s not just interactions with digital devices that can expect a rise in research. With 35% of respondents stating that omnichannel experiences will be an important trend in UX research, it’s clear that businesses are looking to improve the entire CX, including customer interactions with physical products and locations.

In my second piece with UX designer/consultant Uday Gajendar, he addressed the Slack UX phenomenon. I led off by saying:

Either UX beauty has to be redefined, or there are other factors that are important. With enterprise software, adoption is a huge issue right now... There’s a lot of pressure now in enterprises to create software people want to use. I think beauty is a part of that, but I’m not sure it’s the whole thing. For example, I’ve had a lot of experiences with Slack lately; a couple of projects and groups I work with have adopted it, I wouldn’t call it a beautiful interface, but it works seamlessly across devices and touch points, and that’s fueled adoption.

Gajendar responded:

I think people resonate with Slack partly because, it works well across platforms, as you mentioned, but it’s also it’s just a well-crafted interface. It may not be the most visually seductive and sexy, but it’s just well crafted. In enterprise software, design craft is a hugely overlooked, it’s one of the last things for various reasons. The craft leads to quality.

User experience might NOT be a mobile app. Not long ago, Brian Clark of Copyblogger advised me to think of the browser version of the web site as an app - in other words, "appify" your content presentation. User experience also means thinking about what interferes with consumption. Heavy use of ad tech and pop-up ads is a consumption deterrent, though I'm still waiting on more stats to jam that point home. Admittedly, my rant No, pop-ups can’t be part of a good UX – ever. might have had an element of wishful thinking, but I'm not the only one. See: To Block or Not to Block: Can UX and Digital Advertising Be Friends?

Better design is only part of the UX answer

Getting caught up in sexy next-gen design can be a danger. For example, hiding RSS feeds from users is a UX design mistake (see Den's recent RSS rant). I'm thinking of one enterprise blogger I used to track on my feeds and in my weekly hits and misses column. But because this person's web site no longer allows me to subscribe to the content in the form I freaking need it in (RSS or email), I now miss most of the content. Phooey.

UX, then, extends to content delivery in the form and frequency readers want it. That had a big impact on diginomica's recent redesign, where serving up topic-based content and subscriptions was one of our obsessions.

Another interesting contrast is videos versus podcasting. My podcasts typically get ten times the initial consumption levels of my videos (though that changes if the videos get embedded in blog posts and so on - I'm speaking to the original publication).

The main reason the podcast format of the exact same content is more popular is because the distribution and delivery experience via iTunes and SoundCloud are vastly superior to YouTube, which does a pathetically poor job of getting content to your channel subscribers. Plus, audio remains easier to stream, download, and sync between devices. By contrast, YouTube does a far better job with keyword search and discovery than iTunes, which extends the visibility lifespan of content over time. Search and discovery is just as important to UX as the ease of subscription.

The key factors in UX content design

With this in mind, we can now identify the key elements of UX-for-B2B content:

  • Design for cross-device sync and usability, treating the web as a extension of any mobile apps.
  • Balance design simplicity/elegance with the flexibility to consume content in multiple formats (video, audio, text-only email, newsreaders etc).
  • When designing for mobile or other wearables, take full advantage of the user's device habits, including easy swiping to navigate content, image-centric design etc.
  • Ruthlessly reduce the friction of content consumption, including tedious webinar sign up forms, live streaming errors, and member log-in fails.
  • Always ensure easy social sharing of content and interaction with the creator.

The wrap - for now

Getting all this right is a hollow victory if your content stinks. Great/helpful/relevant content is still the enterprise goal. The UX gives great content a chance to shine - it doesn't salvage junk or viral desperation.

Engagement is still the most important goal. That's why I advise starting with the goal of engagement and working your way up those four bullets. In my Slack example, none of the content was generated by the company involved - engagement was achieved by allowing users to pursue creation/communication on their platform of choice.

Engagement is not the end goal either. Vibrant communities do not necessarily lead to monetization. How to get from community to business results is a riddle we continue to write about. Deep community engagement is still a problem you want to have. Content usually plays a role in that, but UX always does. That's why content's winners and losers are being upended. Next time around, I'll get into content platforms and distribution.

Image credits - feature image: new life loading concept © cacaroot - Fotolia.com. Survey results from usertesting.com's UX survey.

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