Back in December, South Dakota State University Extension (SDSU Extension) launched their redesigned website. Since then SDSU Extension content producers have been slowly shifting their thinking from their old methods and standards to their new content strategy.
In late June 2019, I had the pleasure of presenting with Lindsey Gerard and Warren Rushe at the National Extension Technology Conference 2019. Our session topic was using component-based design and structured content changed how they think and plan to produce content.
Prior to the redesign, the SDSU Extension team was frustrated with the lack of flexibility they had when presenting their content on the website. They had one template which all content needed to follow, and only one way of featuring content to their audiences, resulting in a sea of grey where no content stood out nor was served up alongside related content. For the 4-H audience, in particular, it was difficult to highlight tasks and forms that needed to be completed by a deadline.
Per their job descriptions, the Subject Matter Experts (SMEs), who are the faculty and staff at the university, are required to spend 20 percent of their time creating content for the website. Over the years this resulted in a small mountain of redundant content on the website.
Throughout the redesign process, we conducted user research, which revealed that the SDSU Extension audiences were frustrated by not being able to find specific content or answers to their questions quickly. For some topics, a quick keyword search could result in more than 7 articles. The audience didn’t know which article had the appropriate advice to follow for their particular circumstances, such as the current season’s weather protocols, (i.e. cool, late spring resulting in late planting, widespread flooding ruining feed harvest for cattle, or tactics to address heat stress in feedlots).
As we prepared our presentation, Lindsey, Warren, and I met to discuss the process of producing new content for the website. It was during these meetings that I learned how much the user research was impacting their content strategy. I beamed with pride to know that they were serious about walking the walk of creating a user-focused website.
The content providers had a slow start utilizing our new content strategy and implementing cross-discipline writing. After all, the old method of following the single template and filling in the box was comfortable. They could quickly write a bunch of separate articles on a topic and check off their required time commitment for content contributions. Shifting thinking and replacing habits can be a challenge but a few writers saw the new vision of interrelated content and took a chance on this new content strategy.
As Warren prepared to write an article on the challenges that ranchers will deal with when they need to delay their planting due to unsuitable weather, he stopped to think about his colleagues’ content contributions and where they may overlap. Delayed planting will impact multiple aspects of farming for beef or dairy cow ranchers, such as farm management, agronomy, and livestock production. Warren reflected on the user research and questioned how he could fully address all of the questions the ranchers would have about delayed planting. Warren collaborated with his colleagues to create a series of resources on issues that arise with delayed planting. Based on the content they produced for the website they were able to extend the content to social media, radio, TV and newspapers – reaching all of their audiences’ channels. Then the team took their show on the road and hosted eight open house meetings across the state, providing an opportunity for the ranchers to ask the SMEs questions.
I was thrilled when Warren mentioned that technology by itself is not going to break down the silos in an organization to provide multidisciplinary knowledge sharing. Many institutions look to technology solutions to solve people problems. Warren used the empathy gained from user research to understand the ranchers’ perspectives. They aren’t only thinking about one single aspect at a time, but instead, want answers to multi-faceted problems where one action will have a cascading effect on subsequent decisions.
As SDSU Extension moves forward, they are using Warren’s articles and collaborative initiatives as examples to inspire the thinking of others. Taking a moment to reflect on their audiences’ needs, they are now asking “Am I providing all of the information this audience is asking for? Will this recommendation influence other aspects of their ranch or farm? Can I work with another colleague to provide a more complete recommendation?”
I can’t wait to see how SDSU keeps their audiences in mind when creating new content, I believe they will be just as well received. If you’d like to talk with Four Kitchens about user research and/or content strategy, please contact us.