Rebekah Baggs and Chris Corak used to lead separate teams at one of the largest agencies in Arizona. While Rebekah headed up content strategy, Chris was in charge of search engine optimization (SEO). They encountered increasingly complex digital problems and realized that the two disciplines were actually very interconnected, and so they decided they needed to work together in a new way. Both of them quit their jobs and founded Onward, a consultancy that bridges the gap between content, technical SEO, and user experience (UX).

We caught up with one half of Onward, content strategy and UX lead Rebekah Baggs, to find out more about the agency’s content-first design approach.

What’s the thinking behind Onward?

In our experience, great UX and SEO stem from a combination of good design, content, and code decisions made in harmony where each element can impact each other at key points. The workflows at many organizations still don’t reflect this.

Too often design still happens without really understanding content needs. SEO is still expected to be an add-on at the end of a project when all the IA [information architecture], design, and development decisions have already been made. Teams work in silos and don’t have efficient ways of communicating around areas of overlapping responsibilities. We’re here to help people change that, to demystify SEO, and get content right the first time around.

 For Rebekah Baggs (right) and Chris Corak (left), UX and SEO are a match made in heaven.
For Rebekah Baggs (right) and Chris Corak (left), UX and SEO are a match made in heaven.

There aren’t many agencies that were founded by a content strategist and an SEO strategist. How did Onward come about?

We found things a bit frustrating when we were leading our separate teams. For example, when Chris’s team wrote the meta descriptions to summarize a web page in search engines (where users first decide to even visit a site or not), they wouldn’t quite match the tone and key messaging of the web content we created. Or I would make decisions around nomenclature for a site’s navigation or determine the top user needs to address in content, and then Chris would see it later in the project and need to make quite a few changes based on some of the user intent analysis and semantic keyword research he was doing. It just felt like a lot of needless rework.

We realized in order for us to both do our jobs effectively, we needed to work more closely together. We needed to create space for us to share decision-making at key points in projects, and even overhaul the way we worked with the development team. Eventually, we thought, “Why not venture out on our own and just put all of our focus on helping organizations figure this out?”

How can user research and SEO/analytics data work together to help us design better products?

It’s helpful to remember that for many people user experience starts at the search engine level. Unless they’re visiting your site directly, Google is probably the most popular path to discovery of your website and digital products. Secondly, the shared goal of user research, SEO research, and analytics assessment is to get a real-life picture of your users, how they search, what they need and expect, and how they interact with your digital experiences.

We think of user and search-focused research as two sides of the same coin:

Your data: the keywords, long-tail searches that reveal search intent (stuff that you could research with, Ubersuggest, or Moz’s own Keyword Explorer), and then your analytics, including entry and exit points, clicks, bounces, site-browsing paths, etc. That stuff can tell you what happened in terms of online behavior. Search intent specifically is great for understanding not only what people want and expect from your site, but how many people want and expect those things — and at what point in their user journey this information matters most.

On the other hand, user research can help you understand why those things are happening. Things like journey mapping and user interviews reveal offline behaviors that are so important to understand, like the underlying motivations, concerns, attitudes, emotions, and beliefs that determine people’s needs, wants, behaviors, and ultimately their purchase decisions.

How does your approach help avoid classic design and development mistakes?

Most design and development decisions come from not truly understanding content needs and a lack of communication with content and SEO folks at critical moments in the design and development process.

For example, if there isn’t really good documentation or communication between the development team and the SEO or content strategist before they begin coding out a new website, the CMS might not allow for easy implementation of markup, and it might be too costly to go back and hard code it back in later. Content modules might be coded exactly as they look in mockups and lack the flexibility editors really need on the back-end once they start implementing real content. Seemingly minor things can be overlooked, like forgetting to input alt text for images or giving directory paths semantically relevant naming conventions, which can have a negative impact on search.

I wouldn’t say we have a special approach for avoiding these mistakes. There’s no secret sauce or behind-the-scenes magic to how we do things. But what we do advocate for in any project we work on, whether it’s a big redesign or iterative update, is a content-first design approach and getting all the key project players together as early as possible. This means gathering people from both leadership and implementation teams like design, development, UX, content, SEO, marketing, and even key executive stakeholders in one big working session to map out:

  • A definition of the problem they’re solving.
  • A shared vision of what success looks like.
  • A project journey map that captures every step in the project, which teams need to be involved in each one, what their role will be, and determining areas of overlapping responsibilities or shared decisions.

By creating a working environment that addresses content needs early in the research and discovery phase, and sharing findings across the entire design team, you greatly reduce the risk of creating design that’s focused on visuals and layout, rather than information needs and priorities.

Finally, having the content team work with designers and developers for key implementation aspects is paramount. By creating space to share content needs and decisions in the design phase and communicating related editorial expectations to developers, you ensure that our design systems and website experiences won’t break down once the real content is put into place.

 A cross-discipline team creating a redesign project roadmap that charts out each step in the project, and lets people map out areas of overlapping responsibility.
A cross-discipline team creating a redesign project roadmap that charts out each step in the project, and lets people map out areas of overlapping responsibility.

What’s an example of a successful client project you worked on at Onward?

We worked with the team at insurance company Colonial Life and their development partner to overhaul their website. The old Colonial Life site suffered from thin content that used internal jargon rather than plain language, lagged behind competitors in search visibility for key products, and had a confusing navigation and IA that made it difficult for key user segments to find the information they needed. We were asked to help with the research and discovery phase of the project, as well as content and SEO implementation.

One of the things that really contributed to the success of this project was the wonderful in-house marketing and UX team at Colonial Life. However, they did have some barriers around communication to overcome. For one thing, they’re literally located in separate states — the UX team is based in South Carolina and the marketing and SEO team is located in Maine. When the project got underway, we noticed an underlying tension between marketing and UX in early stakeholder interviews and seemingly conflicting priorities. Making sure leadership from both sides were in alignment was critical.

We held an all-day in-person collaborative kick-off meeting that brought everyone together to create a shared definition of the problem and vision of success, and conducted extensive stakeholder interviews to make sure to include people from teams like customer service, product, sales, and even IT. At the end of each interview we’d ask, “What’s the one thing you think we can do to ensure this redesign is a success?” An overwhelming number of participants simply said, “Doing interviews like this.” For many of the people we spoke with, this was the first time their team was getting a voice in the discovery process and weighing in on content needs for the site. Getting that organization-wide input was a critical element of the project’s success.

 Onward encouraged input from around the organization — even though Colonial Life’s UX and SEO teams were located in different states.
Onward encouraged input from around the organization — even though Colonial Life’s UX and SEO teams were located in different states.

Another aspect of our work that had a positive impact was the user intent analysis. In this process we analyze thousands of keywords and hundreds of long-tail searches around the company’s key product offerings to uncover search intent around supplemental insurance. We then use that information to better understand what information, features, and functionality users need, and where in the user journey they need it most. That data revealed not only which products were most searched for, but the nuance around what information matters most to customers interested in those products, so we could address those needs in the content hierarchy, high-level navigation, and other site design elements. Overall, it felt like a big shift toward becoming more user centric, although there were still some compromises we had to make around legal compliance.

The new site launched early this year, and so far the results have been really positive. Overall, the company has seen more than a 20-percent increase in organic traffic, and a 15-percent increase in the average time that people spend on the site (which in this case is one of metrics we use to measure an improvement in user experience and content engagement). The best part has been the sharp uptake in actual leads Colonial Life has received, too.

How can UX tools help us design the right content for our users, and how do we modify these tools for content considerations?

Nearly every UX research method and tool we use can be modified to include a content-specific layer.

For example, if we’re conducting user interviews or journey mapping, it can be really helpful to ask people to tell you about the last time they did a Google search around your product or service, how they choose what links to follow, how they determine what information is trustworthy, what their biggest challenges were in getting the information they needed, etc.

When creating wireframes, instead of thinking desktop or mobile-first and worrying about positioning, adding a content-specific layer can help you focus on what really matters — prioritization. Try hosting a collaborative working session with stakeholders, in which you review real, researched user needs and priorities before doing anything else. Then map out the specific business goals and user needs for the page that you’re wireframing, and document what content, features, or functionality you would need to actually address those business goals and user needs. Then do an exercise to prioritize those content types and rank them from most important to least important. This helps to establish a user-friendly content hierarchy to the page, reveals positioning and layout naturally, and helps to anchor page features or UI decisions with the real content they would contain.

Just remember, words are always your lowest-cost, lowest-risk design tool. Modifying any UX tool to include content-specific insights will bring greater clarity and consistency to the language, information hierarchy, and overall usability of a product or website.

Next time you’re using a UX tool like a journey map, interview guide, or user story and want to add a content-specific layer, think about how the tool can help:

  • Prioritize the user’s most important information and tasks.
  • Determine what tone of voice would be the most appropriate for the user’s emotional context.
  • Capture how users think and the words they use to describe things.
  • Score SEO points by understanding next and related steps so you can get cross-linking right.
  • Document “backstage” elements of the website that show related content editorial or CMS needs.

Once a designer or company has launched or redesigned a site, how do they maintain and improve the content?

One of the best things about web content is that you can always make iterative improvements based on what you learn. But the truth is, maintaining a site after launch is hard work — especially in large organizations with dispersed content editors. If you can, it’s super helpful to get a head start on this well before the new site launches, but even if it’s after your redesign, it’s not too late. Here’s a good list of things to start with:

  • Conduct content usability tests around key content areas as part of overall testing before and after launch (for example, you can micro-test the usability of text like Ida Aalen suggests here with a simple online form).
  • Establish web writing and content design guidelines to maintain clarity and consistency.
  • Create a web content governance model that outlines ownership responsibilities and helps content creators and editors understand their role in maintaining content over time. GatherContent has some good, practical free resources on this to help you get started.
  • Make sure your governance plan and guidelines include considerations for SEO. Creating consistency in use of alt descriptions, metadata, titles, and tags is key — a lot of times these are critical components of accessibility, too.
  • Set content-specific KPIs and set-up tracking in your analytics to monitor content performance over time and help you identify potential problem areas.

And remember, it’s easy to create rigid, complex systems that look great on paper, but fail to work in the real world. Ultimately, the most important thing you can do to maintain a great content experience on your site is to make sure that whatever guidelines or governance plan you make are sustainable and something everyone can realistically stick to.