Daniel Eizans

Strategy | Information Architecture | Geekery


Content Strategy Gut Checks: The Café Test

Content Strategy Gut Checks: The Café Test is the first in a series of six blog posts accounting for the testing of content and content strategy models in usability testing.

Content strategy can be a long and drawn out process. There is an incredible amount of work that goes into developing and implementing content strategy, so it always frustrates me to learn that many clients are being provided with usability tests that only focus on the user interface and the navigation of a Web site.

Cup of Coffee and iPad in a German Cafe

This isn’t entirely surprising, as many sites are not created using a “content out approach (see also: @Malarkey), and often times content testing isn’t suggested or performed until post launch — a disastrous folly in its own right.

I’m not advocating that EVERY site should be designed in a content out way, but I do believe that content strategy and its eventual product are deserving of some very specific questions and equal time in usability testing. And one of the best methods for getting a gut check for a site’s content (and content strategy), especially in the early days of your project, is the Café Test.

How To Get Started

If you’re not familiar with café testing, it’s exactly what you would assume it might be. It requires the tester to plop himself in a high traffic area, like a café (preferably one where your target user might be) to approach potential users. The person giving the test should use a sign to attract potential participants or come up with a clever hustle to draw them in. Coffee, tea, beer or $5 usually does the trick.

Once you have a properly imbibed and willing participant, ask for a few demographic questions. How old are they? What is their education level? Have they participated in a study like this before? What do they do for a living? Have them sign a consent form if your company/client requires it (I’ll provide an example consent form a in my next post).

After you’ve got the basic info and signed consent, load up your site via laptop, iPad or your mobile and let them spend some time interacting with your content, not just the site itself.

Should your study require it, direct them to perform a few tasks using the site’s intended UI and PAY CLOSE ATTENTION. This is where café testing gets a little anthropological. Take photos or video if they’ll let you. Study how they interact with the site, paying close attention to how much they read, what their initial impressions are and how they move through the content. Allow them a good five to 10 minutes to interact with the content and then follow their play time with a few questions.

Questions, Questions, Questions

Café tests should always ask specific questions about the content, but they should be kept simple. Remember, this isn’t a focus group, it’s a gut check to see if we’re on the right track and we’ve only bought them a cup of coffee. If we bought them dinner or paid for them to miss work, we could take greater liberties with our requests.

Some sample questions could be:
1. How easy was the [content] for you to understand?
2. Did you believe the [content] was interesting? Explain why or why not.
3. What was the most helpful piece of [content] on the page?
4. Could the [content] have been organized, written or presented in a different way to be more useful?
5. What do you think the [content's] intended purpose was?

(NOTE: [content] could be anything in this case. It could be a specific video, form, photo gallery, text, etc.)

These questions should be written up or recorded and then organized into a report.


The goal of the café test is to obtain a gut check and document the informal glimpses into the perceptions of the public when it comes to your site and its content. They are most useful when tasks are simple enough that formal usability testing may be overkill, or when time is of the essence (like, we launch next week OMG!). The downside is that the target users are not always available.

Deliverables for site stakeholders and (maybe) clients include: spreadsheets, photos, videos, quotes and qualitative comments.

Summing It Up

During the initial stages of your project, café testing can be especially helpful because it’s relatively cheap, and the results will help you get priorities in order or disprove a hypothesis about user behaviors or their potential for comprehension early on.

That said, café testing requires three things to be really successful — well-defined questions, a reasonable testing window (no more than 15 minutes of your subject’s time should be taken) and a decent sampling of users that meet your demographic. If you don’t know where to find them, ask a user. People like to herd and flock, so chances are your users can point you in the right direction.

While the café test isn’t the most scientific of models we could use to analyze our users and content, it starts to give us some early impressions and further hone our strategic goals as we build our site. They’re also a lot of fun to administer and who knows, you just might make a new friend.

Next up, we’ll take a look at First Impressions testing. Stay tuned.

Photo By: Johannes Kleske. Used via: Creative Commons: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic


Marriage Lessons: Content Strategy and Information Architecture

Sometimes, the marriage of content strategy and user experience can be a tricky thing. The relationship forces an individual primarily focused on making a site usable, functional and beautiful to play nice with a strategist, who is focused on what populates that lovely work of code. Often times the two practices seem to be at constant odds with one another, but when content strategy and user experience work with common purpose (to make the Web a more usable place), amazing things can happen.

The secret to a happy and healthy UX/Content Strategy marriage comes not only with shared purpose, but lies within the ability for one to be an advocate for the other’s work. I can say with no reservations that without the guidance of Erika, my partner of the last three years, that my work would have suffered. She makes me appear to be much smarter than I actually am and aside from being a constant advocate for content strategy, you couldn’t ask for a nicer person to have to spend your days with.

So you can imagine how unhappy I am to report that she left me (well, the agency) on Friday.

To say that Erika’s departure is painful is a gross understatement. You see, there’s a special bond (a link if you will) that digital geeks who seriously LOVE building sites share. I believe that we worked so well together because for as long as I’ve known her, Erika has approached Web sites with content in mind.

Erika and I have shared similar paths, as did anyone who began working with code and Web sites in the 90s. At that time, coders had to be cognizant of the content, because there were no other members of a web team. We were the “Webmasters,” “Web Editors” and “Site Masters.” We were the sole owners of the code, the copywriters and the editors of content and the presence we were called upon to create. We had no choice than to be intimately connected to the design and the material that populated it.

It wasn’t until the web started evolving beyond “brochure ware” that we were called to start thinking about content differently for web users. During that time, UX started down a different path and content strategy began to emerge, but for Erika, and many other UX pros, content strategy was already embedded into their DNA and they’re better for it.

Recently, the explosion of focus on content strategy has brought much attention to the space and folks who didn’t have this early experience in design (and even several who did) are starting to get territorial over deliverables and responsibilities. A lot of content strategists and UX pros have started writing about the relationship and exploring it in greater detail. For the most part, I believe the discussions have been positive.

Two strong examples of the positive looks that come to mind include: Kristina Halvorson’s article for UX Mag and my Campbell-Ewald colleague Chris Moritz’s talk on the Overlaps and Underpinnings of CS and UX.

These are great places to start and both remind us that there is room for both the user experience professional and the content strategist to do their work. We just have to remember that we all have a common goal … to make the Web a more useful and usable place.

Consequently, Campbell-Ewald is looking for a top-notch information architect. You’ll get to work alongside people who love the interactive space and are doing some fantastic work in content strategy and interactive design. Check out the job listing and come work with us in the Mitten: Information Architect Job Posting.

Hug your IA today!

Chain Link Photo used via Creative Commons License. Photographer: Matti Mattila


Review: The Elements of Content Strategy by Erin Kissane

Elements of Content Strategy by Erin KissaneBrilliant. Funny. Useful. All words that quickly sum up Erin Kissane’s Elements of Content Strategy.

Kissane’s work is part of the A Book Apart series, which is bills its titles as “Brief books for people who build websites.” Elements of Content Strategy definitely follows that formula, yet still feels like a complete examination of the topic.

This work was absolutely needed in the content strategy space and couldn’t have come at a more important time given the explosion of interest in what we do. Elements doesn’t attempt to make an argument for the field’s practice, nor does it try to teach one how to get started. What it does, brilliantly, is describe the practice’s individual parts, pieces and points of view. In doing so, we start to learn how we got here in the first place and get an idea of where the field is going.

In this aim, Kissane comes through with true verve. Her writing is funny, witty and easy to understand (read as: minimal emphasis on jargon). The text flows in an entirely logical order, beginning with shared values that every content strategist should be paying close attention to. Here she touches on why content deserves special attention in the first place and what beliefs drive that focus.

She follows this with a thorough examination of the craft itself, reviewing various mindsets that content strategists tend to have when they approach their work. I very much enjoyed her humorous narrative looks into the minds of Editors, Curators, Marketers and Information Scientists and appreciated that she took the time to illuminate the points of view (and baggage) that those very different perspectives bring forward when practicing content strategy.

It’s in those explorations that Kissane fills the biggest gaps in the conversation around content strategy. With so many voices coming from different disciplines, she succeeds in bringing the reader to the realization that though we all have a different lens for our focus, the shared principles are the end goal. This chapter also supports my personal belief that most content strategists need to spend some time digging into each of these four areas to deliver a complete content strategy, as focusing on a single style will inevitably leave a hole in the end product.

Following the examination of the craft, Kissane provides insights into the tools and techniques that a content strategist has at her disposal. She addresses techniques for a wide range of CS deliverables; from strategy and design to content planning and curation. What I especially liked about this section was Kissane’s reassurance that not every tool is needed for every situation. More often than not, I find that many people see content strategy as a long, drawn out process that has too many steps. Elements of Content Strategy reminds us that what is truly important is having a communication strategy and set of deliverables that makes sense for our end user and our internal team that’s executing the production of content. Here you’ll also find some nice examples of content templates and get some insight into how Kissane approaches a project. All useful things.

In summation, the book is entirely useful and would serve both the experienced and novice content strategist well. For me, a book’s true value is whether or not I’m willing to let it take up the valuable real estate I set aside on my desk for reference. I’m happy to say that a paperback copy, just like the other titles in the A Book Apart series, already has a home waiting for it.

One more thing: Aside from being a great read, the book itself is beautifully designed. Credit for that goes to Jason Santa Maria. I’m a firm believer that beautiful design makes things inherently more approachable and Jason’s lovely choice of type and use of color helped make Elements of Content Strategy a joy to read.

The book will be released on March 8. A Book Apart isn’t taking pre-orders, but you’ll be able to buy it here next Tuesday.

Disclaimer: I feel it appropriate to mention that one of my charts and some of my thoughts were featured in the first chapter of this book. And while I’m humbled to be even the smallest of contributors to this text, I don’t believe it in any way influences my endorsement of the fine work that Erin has done.

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