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 keywordtool.io, 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 schema.org 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.