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