By Caitlin Vlastakis Smith published February 17, 2014

Content Planning: How to Use UX Research to Uncover Hidden Needs

We have, as human beings, a storytelling problem. We’re a bit too quick to come up with explanations for things we don’t really have an explanation for. — Malcolm Gladwell, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking

figure standing in circle-arrowComing to grips with this statement is like accepting you’ve been wearing your underwear backwards for years — it’s slightly anxiety-inducing, and brings a touch of shame, yet it’s also quite clarifying.

Gladwell is referring to our inability — as mammals with big “machines” in our heads — to clearly express what we want and what we think. He gives examples from his research that demonstrate how our conscious mind and unconscious mind aren’t the best at communicating with each other. (Come on, guys, get it together. We’re on the same team!)

Often, verbal explanations crafted by our conscious mind don’t reflect what we really think or what we really want. While we think we’re telling the truth, in reality it’s our actions and habits that truly reflect our beliefs, wants, and values — regardless of whether they align with our verbal self-expression — call it a storytelling dilemma, if you will. Our behavior acts like little mirrors sewn into our jackets, revealing our inner selves. 

So, what does this mean in terms relevant to content marketing? More specifically, how can user experience (UX) strategy be used in tandem with our content planning efforts to overcome this intrinsic storytelling dilemma and strengthen the value and transparency of our messages? Take a look at just one of the core principles of both disciplines:

  • Content marketing is all about putting buyers first: Brands do this by providing audiences with the information they need, with the ultimate goal of helping them make a purchase decision. In essence, content planning is the process of crafting value in an engaging and understandable way, and placing it in the consumer’s path to be discovered, unobtrusively.
  • UX strategy is all about putting users first: Brands do this by designing services, experiences, and products that help people accomplish their desired tasks and goals. A critical part of this process is building a strategic lens through which to view your audience members, so you can design a solution that will meet their unique needs. UX strategy and planning removes friction and other barriers to engagement, and creates cognitive ease.

Understanding how people think and what makes them tick is the common building block behind both creating content and designing experiences that matter to people. But before you dive into content planning or begin designing an experience, you have to understand what your audience finds meaningful. 

This is where UX research can provide insight to help inform content marketing efforts.

Two key methods of UX research 

1. Conducting interviews and field research: Conducting interviews and field research can both be used to surface knowledge that can guide your development of buyer personas, as well as your other content planning efforts. These processes can unearth insights that stretch far beyond the design of an online tool or interface. They can, in turn, help inform the development of new services, offerings, and value propositions as well as reveal content gaps or opportunities to repurpose existing content. This knowledge is not only invaluable to the design team, but to all stakeholders who communicate with that audience (this means you, marketing department).

But this doesn’t simply mean asking people what they want. Remember, us humans have that pesky human storytelling dilemma. Your goal is to gather enough information to look at the world through the lens of your audience members in order to identify opportunities to serve them better.

For marketers, this means investing quality time talking to customers about their day-to-day activities, goals, and challenges, either by phone or face-to-face. This is not a sales call, nor is it a cleverly masked opportunity to plant seeds of brand promotion. Talk to your customers like you would a friend. Listen and ask pointed questions to learn more about their daily challenges and goals. This will help you establish a clearer vision of the intricate details that compete for their attention and influence their decision making. These conversations will serve as igniter fluid as you brainstorm content ideas.

Going one step beyond customer interviews, when possible, get out of the office and spend time with customers on their turf, in their environment. In the UX industry, we call this a “contextual inquiry.” Spend time shadowing a customer as an apprentice/observer, noting common tasks, activities, and problems they manage throughout their day. During these on-site visits, questions naturally surface that you wouldn’t think to ask during interviews. Witnessing your audience manage challenges and solve problems firsthand is a rapid-fire way to build empathy and contextual relevance for content planning.

For example, I recently put on my steel-toe boots and spent an afternoon observing a plant manager in the food and beverage industry. I walked alongside him, asking occasional questions as he checked on his team working on the plant floor, took chemical measurements, oversaw safety processes, and evaluated equipment. I immediately learned this guy doesn’t need a white paper. He spends most of his day on his feet, not sitting behind a desk, which raised a question in my mind: When would he have time to explore a beautifully designed interactive infographic? I realized short, informational videos that he could watch on his phone while troubleshooting equipment would provide much more value for him — and, thus, would be a much wiser investment in terms of content marketing.

So, observe and talk to users before investing in content you think they may want. Make sure you understand what they’ll be doing when they receive your eBook, blog post, white paper, etc., before you create one. Find out what’s going on in their day-to-day before planning your editorial calendar.

What does this accomplish?: Interviews open a window into your audience members’ world as you listen to them talk through their daily activities and challenges. Through the power of observation, field research uncovers how your target audience behaves and the context influencing how it will consume your content. In both cases, you’re surfacing needs and arming yourself with insights that allow you to identify meaningful content for your audience members — rather than waiting on them to tell you what they want and filter their needs through verbal expression.

2. Monitoring social habits and content consumption: Monitoring content consumption patterns and social sharing habits can help marketers formulate mental models. A mental model is a blueprint of an audience’s behavior, actions, and assumed thought processes during a given scenario.

Very much like buyer personas, mental models serve as strategic touchstones to ensure you’re keeping your audience at the center of content planning and creation efforts, but should constantly be iterated upon as you learn more about your audience. 

Mental models are most often built on insights from primary research, but there are ways to glean valuable insights through secondary research, as well. Of course, if you have access to data sources, such as web analytics, and can tease out patterns in behavior (or the absence of a common behavior), start there. Then (and this is where it gets fun!), put on your detective hat and start exploring the social channels and publications your audience frequently visits. For example, if you need to figure out what wastewater treatment operators are talking about in order to plan your content topics, try looking at discussion threads on relevant LinkedIn groups, and ask yourself a few questions to identify the actions that this audience is likely to take:

  • How do they problem solve?
  • What topics are being discussed?
  • What are the common challenges they’re facing?

LinkedIn groups are fountains of knowledge. Need to better understand what an IT analyst thinks about a certain topic? Check out the gems buried in the comments section of online industry magazines and news sources, noting the answers to questions like:

  • What are they saying?
  • What are they linking to in support (or negation) of the author’s point of view?
  • What are the overall sentiments that are being expressed in the comments?

What does this accomplish?: Observing content consumption habits and behavior on social media can help you untangle how members of a target audience think and ways they problem solve without them having to tell you, firsthand. 

Going forward

There are many different methods for conducting research, depending on the project — and just as many outputs you can create to synthesize that research. But what’s most important is the ultimate goal: Uncover what motivates people, surface unknown needs, gather insights, and then ultimately figure out how you can serve them. Listen. Observe. Dig. Learn. Always push yourself to ask, “why?” with a willingness to chase down an answer (and accept that you may never find it).

Unpacking the answers to “why?” fuels UX research, and when applied in the context of content marketing efforts, can help paint a clearer picture of your audience members so you can create meaningful content to serve them better.

While we may never have all the answers, and navigating the human mind can feel like a rollercoaster ride after too many corn dogs, chasing down clarity and clues to demystify the unexplainable is all part of the fun.

What do you think?

I’m interested in how others tackle this challenge. How do you learn more about the people you’re trying to reach? What insights have been most surprising?

For more insight on content planning processes, tips, and techniques, check out CMI’s Planning how-to guide.

Cover image via Bigstock

Author: Caitlin Vlastakis Smith

Caitlin Vlastakis Smith is a senior strategist at Centerline Digital, a content marketing agency. Half UX designer, half content creator, Cait partners with clients like GE, IBM and Quintiles to solve communication challenges through meaningful content and brand experiences. Follow Cait on Twitter, and check out her writing on the Centerline blog and Medium.

Other posts by Caitlin Vlastakis Smith

  • Cat Fyson (Koozai)

    Hi Caitlin

    Great piece – UX is so important within content marketing, and is often ignored to churn out content that does not bear the audience in mind. I find that questionnaires can be incredibly insightful to help form or develop buyer personas as well as provide some interesting data for future content.

    • Cait Vlastakis Smith

      Thanks for reading and for the comment, Cat! And great point about questionnaires and surveys. They’re very useful tools to help tease out perceptions and preferences. I’ve also been surprised by how often users will provide insights when I leave a few open-ended questions, such as “Is there anything else you’d like to share regarding [insert topic.]” They bring up things I’d never think to ask, which is always interesting. Thanks again!

  • Andrew McNamee

    I think this is really interesting. However, I’m in a bit of a predicament at the moment. I’ve just conducted some quant research on the types of topics that out customers would be interested in and it suggested some good ideas. However other parts of the research were quite baffling. One point was when we asked customers if they saw content as a distinguishing factor when choosing a financial services provider, only 4% thought it was. Most people said price and brand. I would naturally expect brand and price to be important, but for content to only get 4% is obviously quite worrying – especially as my marketing strategy is based on content being our USP. Is this common to see from research?

    • Jay Cosnett

      Andrew, I can claim no expertise or insights into your specific customers, but I suspect this quote from the article might be relevant:

      “Verbal explanations crafted by our conscious mind don’t reflect what we really think or what we really want.”

      Your customers may *say* that content is not a distinguishing factor, but is that really true? If a certain provider was consistently seen as a source of superior insight, knowledge, etc. (aka, showed they were “better” than the competition through the content they shared), would customers really ignore that superiority because of price? And, what determines, for your customers, a superior brand? Does content play a role? Are brand characteristics (positive and negative) created or proven by the content the brand creates?

      Sounds like maybe more digging is required!

      • Andrew McNamee

        Yep. I think you’re right with that. I’m going to conduct some Qual work to see what that shows. Hopefully it’s more positive. Thanks for the reply.

        • Cait Vlastakis Smith

          Thanks for sharing your interesting finding, Andrew. Jay really hit the nail on the head with his response and questions: more digging!

          Although I’m not entirely familiar with your audience or the way you positioned your question during research, but I’ve learned (the hard way) that a lot of folks outside our industry aren’t really familiar with the word “content” and what all that entails. Sometimes their definition of “content” is different than my own. Do they, for example, consider an easy-to-consume “How to Transition Your Account” instructional guide emailed from a customer service rep “content”?

          Anytime I spot something interesting in research like you mentioned, I try to vet it out in my head with a few questions: Did I assume too much when I wrote this question? Did I influence a response with the positioning/language I used? Or (as with your case), this finding would have such an impact on my future planning, what are other methods should I consider to further explore this finding? That’s why I think it’s great that you’re already planning to conduct some qualitative research to augment your existing research.

          Again, thanks for raising the question and adding to the discussion!

  • ronellsmith

    I know you produce great work, so this one is no surprise. As I read it I was reminded of a talk I had with a college dean when I was a business writer for a newspaper. He said “No matter what it is you want to know, someone out there has the answer to it. They’ll gladly share it with you if you only ask them for it.”

    We so often think tools and platforms replace good ol’ human interaction, but it does not. Not to mention the dearth of time spent observing those who would comprise our core audience.

    One of the biggest disconnects I see in content marketing is a failure to recognize the value of UX, which leads to vast holes throughout the business. The more information we can glean about users and user the behavior, the more informed we become as businesspeople


    • Cait Vlastakis Smith

      Thanks for reading, Ronell, and for your comment! It’s funny how we remember wise words from our past. That college dean made an excellent statement that’s so easy for us to overlook with our busy days: the immeasurable value of a simple conversation.

      I see a lot of opportunity at the intersection of content marketing and ux, which is why this piece was so fun to write, and why I look forward to learning more about how others approach this innate “storytelling dilemma.” The convergence of these two fields, both of which focus on helping people rather than pushing sales pitches, is an exciting place to be. The learning never ends!

  • Jeremy Swinfen Green

    I think you are right that it is really important to consider the user experience when developing content. And it helps to use UX research for content planning. The trouble is that the tool most commonly used by UX agencies isn’t for for this.

    Most UX agencies use as their “standard” tool UX tests (which are really just computer mediated depth interviews) where 6 to 10 people are put in front of a computer and asked to use a website, commenting on their feelings as they go along. But as you (and Malcolm Gladwell) have said, you can’t trust people to express their reasons accurately.

    The UX tests that so many UX agencies use were designed for usability testing (and they work well there). But running a dozen 90 minute interviews is rarely going to be an effective way of gauging the complexity of the user’s experience of a website.

    Instead you can – as you suggest – use ethnographic research. But that is expensive. And it is done badly as often as it is done well.

    Neuro-marketing techniques enable us to look more closely at emotions, and do away with the need for tests participants to express their opinions. But they are expensive too.

    Surveys – well, as often as not they are only good for telling you how people have answered the questions you have asked them. At best the information they give is too “thin” to be of much use for content planning.

    A tool that can work well is the observation of real life behaviour through the use of web analytics and the monitoring of social media activity. This is especially so when combined with AB and multivariate testing. After all it is hard to argue with fact! But while this will tell you what people do, it doesn’t tell you why they do it.

    Understanding “why” is always going to be a problem, and not necessarily one you will solve through research. Personally I think there is no substitute for experience and imagination here. A good designer or content developer should be able to create great content based on their understanding of the audience. They should be able to deliver a great user experience based on their knowledge and wisdom. But they probably won’t rely much on UX research for planning it: as Henry Ford might not have said “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

  • Ross

    Working in Higher Ed and figuring out why someone applies to our University can be daunting task. Why a high school student makes that decision to attend college has so many factors. The economy, our reputation, career opportunities, partying, friends, family all play into that decision. I know our process marketing to them all while accepting their application needs to change dramatically. I think 80% of our admission process is still in paper form from marketing materials to application forms. UX starts at our first introduction and ends with them walking at commencement. Their are so many different types of UX in between that we need to focus on to make the overall experience better. That overall experience is the story that graduates go home with and if it is good or bad a potential student may hear it first hand from them and remove us from their list. The bigger challenge is getting reform throughout the organization to make the UX the best at all levels.

    • Cait Vlastakis Smith

      Ross, thanks for your comment and for sharing your challenge. I love this UX thinking. “UX starts at our first introduction and ends with them walking at commencement.” Right. On. Your challenge is a really interesting one…and one I personally find fascinating because education is the key to so many opportunities that can greatly influence one’s life. And how you market to prospective students (and how word spreads to them via word-of-mouth) plays a role in helping to shape those decisions.

      One idea that may help you begin gaining buy-in and understanding across the organization is through the creation of an experience map. Maybe one for the “decision making journey” of high school seniors, highlighting what they think/feel/do throughout the year leading up to application deadlines. Or, you could map out the holistic education experience at your college/university, from introduction to graduation, which could bring forward key areas of opportunity for improvement (since, as you mentioned, word-of-mouth marketing is huge for this audience). You may be familiar with Adaptive Path (masters of the experience map). Here’s a great resource I refer to often:

      Best of luck. And thanks again for reading the post and adding your thoughts.