A hierarchy of content needs

Sarah O'Keefe / Opinion10 Comments

Some thoughts on how to evaluate a hierarchy of content needs as a foundation for content strategy.

In working through the idea of minimum viable content, I decided to build out a hierarchy of content needs based on Maslow’s hierarchy. In Maslow’s pyramid, the basic needs (like food and water) are on the bottom. If you don’t have the basics, you’re unlikely to be interested in the top layer (self-actualization).

What happens if you look at content needs?

Based on Maslow's hierarchy of needs, the layers are from bottom to top: available, accurate, appropriate, connected, and intelligent

Scriptorium hierarchy of content needs

The bottom three layers are what’s required for minimum viable content.

This hierarchy helps us with content strategy work. When your content is not even available in a useful format, focusing on social engagement (the connected layer) is probably premature.

Available

Available content means that information exists, and the person who needs it has access to it. If the content hasn’t been written, but the reader can’t find it, or if it’s behind a firewall/login that the reader doesn’t know about, then content fails the available test.

The first step in meeting content needs is to make the information available to people who need it. You can push information via email, publish to the web or a private site, or send out printed catalogs. But “available” is the first critical need.

In the available category, we also look at whether content is findable, searchable, and discoverable—if readers can’t successfully locate the content they need, it exists, but it’s not really available to the readers.

Accurate

Content should be accurate. Available but inaccurate isn’t so good. Under this category, we can also evaluate information for grammar, formatting, consistency, and other decorations that improve the content quality.

 

Appropriate

Appropriate content is delivered in the right language, in the right format, at the right level of complexity. This is where we put together the user’s needs with the delivery possibilities.

Content is “available” when you put it in a crappy PDF and email it on request.

To pass the “appropriate” test, you must deliver that information in a way that is best for the user. Depending on your user, that could mean a mobile-friendly HTML web site or an EPUB file. There’s delivering content, and then there’s delivering content WELL.

Connected

The connected layer is where you add user engagement and social layers. This is hard to discuss without using terrible buzzwords, but what I’m looking for here is the ability for readers to comment on your content, vote it up and down, and perhaps edit content or create their own content.

You want to support users in engaging with your content.

Intelligent

The pinnacle is content that isn’t just a static piece of text, but information that can be manipulated for different purposes.

Intelligent content might include content that is personalized, interactive service manuals, the ability to filter information based on my needs, and more.

Often, delivering intelligent content requires you to integrate database content (for example, product specifications) with authored content. Troubleshooting instructions, for example, might be integrated with information from the organization’s parts database.

Here’s a slightly more detailed version of the pyramid.

details

What do you think? Can you use the hierarchy of content needs to assess your content requirements? Do you agree with the hierarchy?

UPDATE: Hilary Marsh also built a content needs hierarchy, but hers was published in July 2013 (much earlier than this one). I don’t recall seeing her article, but it’s possible that it’s been kicking around in my subconscious mind for several months. That said, we do have some significant differences, although happily we both have “accurate” as an important base layer in the pyramid.

About the Author

Sarah O'Keefe

Twitter

Content strategy consultant and founder of Scriptorium Publishing. Bilingual English-German, voracious reader, water sports, knitting, and college basketball (go Blue Devils!). Aversions to raw tomatoes, eggplant, and checked baggage.

10 Comments on “A hierarchy of content needs”

  1. I think you’re onto something here, Sarah. (I can you picture you drawing this up during those long plane rides you’ve been on lately. A very impressive use of your “down time”!)

    I find myself wanting to sit down with a mug of coffee and mull over this, drawing out all of the nuances. For example, perhaps we could label the pyramid from the user/reader’s point of view: “Can do this, this, and this” for each level. But, really, you’ve pretty much nailed it.

      1. First coffee. Then mulling. Now a thought: We were recently introduced to Scott Abel’s definition of content — the first chapter in his Language of Content Strategy book with Rahel Bailie. In it, he differentiates the editorial and technical sides of content:

        – Editorially, content should be relevant, accurate, informative, timely, and engaging and should conform to editorial standards.

        – Technically, content should be standards-based, use well-formed schemas, be semantically rich for filtering and findability, and be structured to support automated delivery.

        In the first bullet I see levels 1-3 of your pyramid. In the second bullet I see levels 4 and 5.

        I love it when content strategists get to talking on the same wavelength.

  2. I like the stratification for the way it relates levels of content maturity and of priorities what to work on.

    But ultimately, I’m afraid it’s a rather idealistic picture. IRL, in my experience, cnce content is available, any of the other needs levels may or may not be met, depending on somebody’s whim or what’s technically possible. For example, I’ve seen intelligent and connected content that was barely appropriate and had become obsolete and thus it was no longer accurate. So I see the pyramid work best as a yardstick to say: Uhm, shouldn’t you first worry about accuracy and appropriateness before you go all social.

    Another thought: While intelligence is probably the hardest and most costly to achieve initially, it doesn’t guarantee accuracy and appropriateness in the long run. Levels 2 and 3 (counted from the bottom) require lasting commitment and can lapse at any time or topic, while levels 4 and 5 require upfront investment but can be maintained more easily.

    1. Hi Kai,

      That is EXACTLY my point. Funky dynamic content is only as good as the underlying supporting layers! If we want to put content to work in supporting business goals, then we MUST meet at least the bottom three layers. And so many companies aren’t doing that.

      Also, I don’t think this is limited to tech comm content. This pyramid is or should be appropriate for any customer-facing content–training, marcom, and so on.

      1. Does that imply the supporting layers should be built to facilitate potentially funky dynamic content? Part of the problem of getting to the ‘semantic info’ note at the top layer is even deliberately planned supporting layers tend to be rigid and reflect the shape of the data source. A rigid primary data source is understandable because technical communicators are often presented with that initial layer after the fact of realizing that public content is desirable and necessary. But it becomes the responsibility of the architects of the layer that consumes the data source and shapes the information for communication needs to evaluate the data and shape it such that semantic information bubbles up to the top. Or something like that… 🙂

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