Digital Content Prototypes: How to Create

Once you’ve recognized the importance of treating your content like a product, now it’s time to start building. But before can you arrive at a truly exceptional product (in this case, a content experience worth paying for amidst a sea of free content), you’ll need to adhere to a central tenet in product design: quality is born out of quantity. In other words, you have to build, test, and re-build a lot before finding your perfect product. The most expensive way to test your content (and, unfortunately, the way that most content creators operate today) is by building a fully-fledged, error-free product, shipping it out to readers, and waiting to hear back if the content was a success. Instead, to save time and money, we at Inkling suggest adopting another common product design practice: content prototypes.

Prototypes are preliminary models, such as a chapter outline or a widget sketch, that allow you to get your ideas across quickly to users. Then, based upon feedback, you can iterate and produce more prototypes, and more importantly, better prototypes. Eventually, the prototypes become complete products that solve real problems. While this seems simple enough, the nuances of prototyping arise in asking the right questions, and deciding what kind of prototype you should use when.

To help you create your own content prototypes, I’ve compiled three must-ask questions to keep in mind before, during, and after you’ve built your prototype. Armed with editorial expertise and the mindset of a product designer, you’ll be on your way to better, more user-friendly content in no time.

1. Before you digital content prototypes: Who am I creating this for?

By asking this question, we stay focused on the end-user and how to solve her needs. It reminds us that it doesn’t matter how creative the interactions might be on a product–if it doesn’t provide value to our customers, it’s not worth building. In the same way, it doesn’t matter how beautiful your content looks if, for example, it’s not accessible where your customers need it most.

Set regular sessions where you can engage with people who use your content. Even if you don’t have a prototype or idea to put in front of them, simply engaging with them to better understand their motivations and lifestyles can go a long way. By staying well-informed about your audience, you’ll eliminate  many of the incorrect assumptions and preconceptions that we harbor when building products or creating content.

Content Prototypes

2. While you prototype: Am I moving fast enough?

As mentioned, quality is born out quantity. But in order to build a lot, you have to build fast. Spend time understanding your audience, but don’t bury yourself in research–the quicker that you can create a prototype and put it in front of your audience, the better. Even after hours and hours of planning, there will always be something that you can only discover when prototyping and iterating.

For content projects, moving fast means getting your content idea in front of an audience as soon as possible. Create a minimal viable version of that content to see if people are interested. For example, after completing a chapter or two, you can send it out to gauge people’s reactions and seek their feedback. Realizing a missed opportunity then will be much less expensive to adjust, instead of waiting until the entire project had shipped.

Authors have been experimenting with this concept since the 1800s. Some of the most successful novels of that era were serialized, which meant that newspapers published a small portion each day. Over the course of four months, for example, readers digested The Three Musketeers, which gave author Alexandre Dumas ample time to incorporate his readers’ feedback into the story’s development. Not to mention, the slow reveal generated a lot of buzz among readers patiently waiting for the next installment.

3. After you prototype: What are the tradeoffs?

Building a great product  is a balancing act: feedback will give you a sense of what people want, but oftentimes, people want a lot of great things. Ultimately, product builders and content creators need to make deliberate choices about what they want to create. For example, if you need to communicate a new idea to a group of tech journalists, ask yourself if you should present your content in long-form, interactively, or both? What are the pros and cons of each option? Having a clearly defined overarching mission for your product or content can guide your priorities to help you make the right tradeoffs and offer the most value to your audience.

The bottom line:

Instead of moving directly from idea to launch, it’s important to use prototypes to take calculated steps toward your desired product. By allowing internal feedback and customer research to guide prototype iteration, you’ll ensure that the end product is one that your customers want. Better yet, using prototypes means that you’ll be on your way to a successful product in the most cost-effective and time-efficient manner. For content creators, this means no more hopeful guessing as digital content ships to users or gets rolled out internally, but an assurance that the content product is tried and true.