Before I sold my soul to the advertising industry, I was in journalism. As a cub reporter, I covered crime, courts and emergencies.

The first year of the beat, I wasted a lot of time trying to “perfect” my craft through technical means. I poured over award winning coverage and studied syntax, style and structure. I shortened my ledes, broadened my vocabulary and incorporated new adjectives. It didn’t help.

Moleskine NotesMake no mistake, I was a strong reporter (often thanks to some excellent editors), but it wasn’t until I physically moved to my coverage area and began embedding myself among my subject matter that I began to produce work that resonated with anyone.

I stopped calling sources, instead meeting them for coffee. Whenever possible, I rode along with police officers, embedded myself with SWAT teams and did my best to “experience” stories. I arranged to be put in county lockup to understand what an average inmate’s day was like and I trained as a firefighter for several days. Over time, I began understanding the motivators, behaviors and pain points that my subjects experienced. My stories were better, not because I had better relationships with my sources, but because as I immersed myself in my subject matter. The details that I discovered by being part of the culture helped my writing become more clear.

And so it is for mental modeling for content work. The details – extracted from careful interviews, shared experiences and observations – will ultimately bring clarity to content planning and strategy to populate our systems.

Building Content Focused Mental Models

In her book, Indi Young discusses work that falls into the content strategy process in chapter 12. For Indi, content strategy fits in mental modeling as a parallel path or after the process has been completed. She describes this process as “Content Mapping:”

The content map includes all functionality that already exists and is planned for your solution. Let me assure you that the name “content” does not limit your map to text documents. While it may have started out as a description of an inventory of a news web site or something, it means much more than that these days. Your content map should include all the ways you serve people, including things like monthly account statements or yearly awards banquets, registration for training courses, or a mortgage calculator. Anything that has to do with your relationship with those you serve should be included in your content map.

For Young, the “content map” structure makes little difference to the mental model. The important thing is that the boxes will fit underneath the towers that will ultimately be a part of the solution. My approach differs a bit from Young’s in that I find it much more beneficial to the user experience team if I build the “content map” in the form of a mental model as opposed to the traditional content inventory or visual map that she highlights in her book.

And because I usually have a UX partner that I spend the majority of my project with, I make sure they’re an active participant in the mapping of content to the models.

Bases, Support Structures, Towers and Roots

Before we begin the mental modeling process, we need to go back to the engagement maps we discussed in information gathering. The key engagements we highlight for personas will form the “bases” for “support structures” and “towers,” when we begin plotting our mental models.

A quick check of our engagement map reveals four key patterns for the “Returning Student” persona. They include: “Explore Options,” “Plan and Immerse,” “Overcome Fear,” and “Take Action.” Each pattern (engagement) is used as a “base,” which serves as the foundation to which we’ll start to build out a case for content to address user needs (“towers”).

But before I build towers, I add “support structure” to the base via “intentions.” Intentions provide context to how content should be framed for task completion. I have most often found that intentions either come up in interviews and could be considered a secondary pattern, or could be implied from verbatims that are consistent with one another. They aren’t necessary to a mental model for content work, but I find that they strengthen the strategy and are valuable to content creators.

Once we have bases and intentions we can begin to build “towers” to establish content that aids in task completion. These boxes should essentially label tasks that the user would want to complete. I leave the labels to these boxes in question form to further assist in content planning for task completion.

Below the line – living underneath the bases – I box out what I refer to as “roots.” For my work, “roots” are the content or features of existing systems that help achieve the engagements we’ve used as bases. This is where all that time you spent content auditing saves it in the long run.

Here’s how these elements work together.

Elements of Mental Models For Content Work

What you see above is more or less a piece of a much larger model. These towers, bases and roots could go on for pages and pages depending on the complexity of the section of our system. I mapped this out using OmniGraffle, but before I begin building my artifacts in digital form, I perform modeling exercises that require a war room, transcripts from information gathering, a lot of butcher paper and reams and reams of sticky notes.

"Content Planning From Mental Models"

Depending on the size of the organization and stakeholder involvement, this might be a small group activity (read as: strategist and user experience team) or quite cumbersome (read as: client wants heavy involvement from numerous stakeholders).

The actual creation occurs in these meetings. Just as we would for a mental model for system design, we must interview our assumed users, look for patterns and organize them into the towers. For content work, I’ve found that most research will produce anywhere from 40 to 150 tasks depending on the scope of the project. The patterns that emerge from the research become important for the planning and production of content as these patterns should give us a better idea of both how a user approaches a problem and what fears, hopes, philosophies, etc. must be addressed. As you can imagine, the process is incredibly time consuming. I find a small group with the authority to make major site decisions is the best way to keep the process moving.

Most of my rooms start looking like the photo above (if not more cluttered) not long after interviews for mental models have wrapped up. And after you’ve butcher papered your office to death, you can start building the digital versions. Here’s a closer look at our returning student persona.

Mental Model For Working Adult Seeking Financial Aid

Why It’s Useful For Content Work

Mental models have numerous benefits. The research that goes into a mental model provides a deep understanding of people’s motivations and thought-processes. When they’re done right we should also gain insight to the emotional and philosophical landscape in which users are operating as well.

When we use this understanding for content work, our messages better inform the systems they populate and the users that access them. Once we uncover the roots to a person’s cognition, we have a stronger chance for understanding, learning and comprehension (which happens to be my first principle for content strategy).

But mental models aren’t bullet proof. Depending on your project, producing a mental model that is reliable for a large enough segment of your audience to influence the content strategy might be more difficult. Mental models work best when a user has formed patterns over a longer period of time.

The difficulty with mental modeling for content work is that, by nature, the need for content is normally situational. It then follows that the patterns we see coming out of our research must be strong to depend on them for the actual model and the content that comes from it.

All that said, when a mental model can be produced, it can be extremely useful for planning, maintaining and governing content over time.

There is obviously a lot more to this process than I can get into in a blog post, or a series of blog posts. If you believe mental modeling might be right for your project, I highly encourage that you read Young’s foundational work on the subject: Mental Modeling: Aligning Design Strategy With Human Behavior and find ways to incorporate it into your own content work.

On a related note, I’ll be ranting about this for 20 minutes at Midwest UX 2012 in Columbus this May. I’d encourage you to come out and add to the conversation.


This is the third and final post in a series on Mental Modeling For Content Work. Did you miss the first two?

Read: Mental Modeling For Content Work: An Introduction
Read: Mental Modeling For Content Work: Information Gathering