Content Strategy in Higher Ed: How Page Tables helped the UB School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences

January 24th, 2011 Karine Joly 7 Comments

With Kristina Halvorson’s Master Class coming up soon, I’ve been looking for interesting examples of content strategy at work in higher education. When I saw that the University at Buffalo was looking for a Content Strategist, I had to learn more about their plans and initiatives.

According to David Anderson, Director of Strategic Digital Communications at the School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at the University at Buffalo, the Web Content Initiative at UB took advantage of the desire to get a CMS to dramatically improve website practices. Three university departments (IT, UC, and the School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences) partnered on this project. So, while this wasn’t a pure Content Redesign, it definitely fits the bill of putting a major focus on content.

The School of Medicine’s four pilot sites were the first to make it all the way through the project:

David was kind enough to answer a few of my questions so we can all learn more from his experience.

1) You mentioned that you used Indi Young’s work for this project. Can you tell us a bit more about it? Why do you find it relevant to the situation in higher education?

We employed the techniques from Indi’s book Mental Models in developing our overall site strategies. We developed mental models and gap analyses for a our audience segments. If you’re not familiar with her work, one of the outcomes is a very long chart that aligns content/tasks with audience goals. Crucial to the process is interviewing your audiences.
I’d liken it to personnas on steriods. The resulting chart provides a very striking, visual guide to where you’re meeting audience needs/task and where you aren’t. Here’s an example.

Knowing the tasks and goals of our audiences informed our site designs. We only work on content/tasks that align with our audience needs.

2) How have you used Kristina Halvorson‘s tactics to revamp your websites? Can you share some specific examples of what has proved to be the most useful?

Each of the project partners performed content inventories/audits on their sites at the very start of the project. Those inventories helped us in building the mental models and in identifying what content needed to be developed.

We tried to move very quickly through this project, bringing additional techniques along the way. By our second site, Eileen Ruberto (our IA) was able to pull together a strategy guide that included page tables for every page in the site. Those were a tremendous help: they provide page-level guidance on what content belongs on the page, the messaging goals, related content, et cetera.

All four of the School of Medicine’s pilot sites are now in production and we are working on the rest of the sites in the school, using these practices.

3) Content strategy looks like a daunting task, any lessons learned from this project you can share?

It certainly can be daunting. It’s not to be undertaken lightly. And you need resources. For smaller sites, it’s possible for one person to do it all. But for larger sites and organizations, you need a depth of expertise. Halvorson’s book is invaluable in demonstrating that.

If I had to pick one thing as the single most valuable product to come out of the process, it’d be the page tables. I’ve worked on many website projects and the biggest challenge I’ve seen people struggle with is knowing what to write in the context of an individual page.

The page table is terrific: it tells your writers exactly what needs to be on the page, how to say it, and what supporting materials need to go along with it.

Practice on these strategies on a few small sites first. You need to figure out how to make these strategies fit your practices and workflow or learn to adjust appropriately. The first time through is a rough ride but it becomes a lot easier.

And the lack of good tools to implement these strategies is a big problem.

Content StrategyWant to learn more about content strategy for higher education? Register for Kristina Halvorson’s Master Class (Feb 9, 2011) at