Developers, sysadmins, and other technical staff at NC State are familiar with the term technical debt. It’s a short-hand to refer to all those times when you say, “I could do it the right way, or I could do it the quick way” and you choose the quick way. You’re accumulating debt (some day, you’re going to have to go back and fix your messy code) and the longer you wait, the more “interest” it’s going to accrue (since it gets harder and harder to change course as time goes on).
I’ve been working to retire some of my own technical debt over the last couple of months, working with Chris to re-write the NC State Shortcodes plugin and the Hillsborough theme that many of our clients have been using. Both of those were implemented during a deadline-driven rush in 2015, and both are getting some serious attention this spring/summer.
To many of our non-technical clients, these are just behind-the-scenes details that they hopefully never have to worry about. But technical debt isn’t the only debt that’s accrued when building websites. Every campus client should be thinking about their content debt as well.
What Is Content Debt?
I was introduced to the term in Melody Kramer’s blog post about content debt for 18F, which
I’m shamelessly repurposing here is the inspiration for today’s blog post. Kramer perfectly described some of the issues we encountered (and still struggle with) during our total overhaul of the Office of Information Technology’s website.
Like technical debt, content debt is what happens when you take shortcuts when building your content. “Content” is a wide-ranging term, including both externally-facing descriptions of programs or services and internally-facing documentation of processes and best practices. It might be thousands of words describing an application procedure, or it might be the big banner image that welcomes your users to your website. All of these are potential sources of content debt.
Your content debt may include:
- content that was never created
- content that’s out of date
- content that’s duplicated elsewhere
- content that lives in the wrong place
- content that’s inconsistent (eg. doesn’t follow editorial and brand standards)
- content that doesn’t really need to be there
- content that hasn’t been thought out and given the care it really deserves
As you read that list, you likely experienced flashbacks to at least one university website.
At NC State, web content is often maintained as a secondary responsibility of staff whose primary responsibilities are already taking up most of their schedules. But content debt has consequences, as described by Kramer:
Buildup of content debt may not be as apparent as technical debt, because it’s unlikely to initially cause software to break. Still, it could easily result in confusion, the erosion of trust between the user and the product, a greater need for customer support, slower progress, the need for more meetings, more external and internal complaints, and wasted time getting people onboarded to teams, projects, or organizations. Thinking about content as an afterthought or postponing documentation may result in poor or no documentation if priorities shift or change.
Avoiding Content Debt
So how do you avoid content debt? Kramer provides some guidance, which I’ve separated into two broad categories: planning and maintenance.
- Give thoughtful consideration to architecture (page hierarchy, taxonomies, and the platform where your content lives)
- Give thoughtful consideration to archiving (the consequences of when content goes away)
- Ensure experiences are synchronized (if users are interacting with your organization through multiple platforms, planning out the content distribution between those platforms to ensure a compatible experience.)
- Think about content early and often (rather than putting it off to the end of a project)
- Measure content debt (404 errors, support call analysis)
- Reducing content debt should be part of your culture (make it a shared, collaborative responsibility)
Paying It Off
If you’re deep in debt, you don’t want to just avoid adding more, you want to pay it off and get back above water. Where do you start?
Build It Into Your Workflow
Reviewing and revising your web content can’t be an afterthought that you get to when you have time. And like most internal projects, it’s hard to prioritize retiring your content debt when there’s work to be done serving the NC State community.
Even so, making content reviews part of your regular workflow pays off enormously. Rather than postpone your content debt as a major project, setting aside a little time on a regular basis can ensure that all of your content is evaluated at least annually. This is made somewhat easier with our next item as well:
Set Content Expiration Dates
When creating new content, project constraints make it difficult to do it the right way from the start. But if you’re going to accrue debt anyway, you can make sure it’s a short-term debt rather than a long-term debt. That might mean setting expiration dates that require individual pieces of content to be reviewed.
If you’re already using ServiceNow (NC State’s support management system), consider using ServiceNow Knowledge articles for documentation and other internal-facing content. Knowledge articles require you to set expiration dates before you publish, helping ensure a regular review of content.
For WordPress clients, Stephanie Leary’s Content Audit plugin offers some similar functionality, in addition to other evaluation and reporting tools. We have some experience using that plugin and can help you get started on your website.
Hire OIT Design
This might be a little self-serving, but we’re always here to help! Our staff has experience conducting content reviews, user interviews, and usability testing. But most importantly, we can approach your content with a fresh set of eyes. The longer you live in your content debt, the harder it can be to see another way of doing things.
You can contact us any time to start a conversation about your content!