The 5 Planes of Content Strategy

This article for content strategy students and practitioners who are interested in the delineation between UX design and content strategy. For an introduction to content strategy, read this article.

The Elements of User Experience took the world by storm when it was published in 2002 (and updated in 2010).

Elements helped formalize the burgeoning UX field. I constantly reference the book for its 5 planes model, which Jesse James Garrett introduced as a framework to understand the layers of user experience.

The 5 Planes, from bottom to top, are Strategy, Scope, Structure, Skeleton, Surface.

The ground-breaking idea was not only that each plane is critical to the user experience, but that each plane is dependent on the one below it. (Implication: strategy should be the foundation of any project.)

So, why should content strategists care?

As a new digital field, content strategy can be amorphous and confusing. What exactly does a content strategist do? Are they responsible for the final copy or just “the strategy?” Where does CS end and design start, and vice versa?

With the proliferation of new niches and specialties like UX writing, product content strategy, UX content strategy…it’s hard to grasp the landscape of the growing content strategy practice.

Off the heels of transitioning into content strategy from UX, I revisited Elements for clarification. And I rediscovered something very interesting:

A more detailed diagram of the 5 Planes model explains the difference between product as functionality and product as information.

Light bulb moment: content strategy falls under the product as information umbrella of the elements of user experience.

“On the functionality side, we are mainly concerned with tasks…Here, we consider the product as a tool or set of tools that the user employs to accomplish one or more tasks.

On the opposite side, our concern is what information the product offers and what it means to our users. Creating an information-rich user experience is about enabling people to find, absorb, and make sense of the information we provide.” – Jesse James Garrett

While content strategy impacts products from both an informational and functionality standpoint, content strategists are primarily responsible for the experiences of product as information.

In this article we’ll traverse the 5 planes of user experience as they pertain to content strategy. I’ll also note the content strategy deliverables that apply to each plane.

The Strategy Plane of Content Strategy

Strategy concerns the 5Ws – the who, what, where, when and notably the why behind things.

What’s the idea or product? Who is the customer? Why should we create this?

The strategy plane is about defining the business goals (increase conversions by 5%!), user goals (find a fitness instructor who can help me lose weight!), and where they overlap.

While different roles can conduct research, talk to users and collaborate with stakeholders to understand the subject at hand, content strategy has a unique lens on it: what’s the story here, and how should we tell it?

This level of discovery and brainstorming is often shared by different members of the product team, including content strategists and designers.

Strategy calls for research, actually talking to users, and collaborating with all stakeholders to understand the subject at hand.

Related Content Strategy Deliverables

  • Audience analysis: surveys, customer call logs, chat transcripts, personas
  • Competitive & comparative (C&C) analysis
  • Content brief to deliver the initial content strategy thinking

The Scope Plane of Content Strategy

The scope plane is about defining requirements based on the goals established on the strategy plane. While designers focus on functional requirements like product features, content strategists focus on content requirements like the content that lives inside products.

The feature might be an onboarding sequence, while the content might be the videos and instructional text within the onboarding..

Content requirements include all the information necessary to inform, instruct and guide users throughout an experience.

Working with content requirements demands an understanding of content types and the level of effort required to create them. Content types can include the usual suspects of text, imagery and video. They can also templates, metadata and other components.

The scope of content strategy includes distinguishing between the format and actual purpose of content. A page might call for explanations of how a product works, but it’s up to the content strategist to make a tradeoff between content types (image-heavy design or leveraging text?) and user needs.

Each content type requires different levels of effort to create and maintain, so making the appropriate tradeoffs also falls in the purview of the content strategist.

Related Content Strategy Deliverables

  • Content inventory to scope content requirements
  • Content audit to analyze content needs

The Structure Plane of Content Strategy

Building off the strategy and scope, the experience now needs a conceptual structure. The structure plane defines the patterns and sequences in which experience are presented to users.

In the original 5 planes model, this plane is shared by information architecture (product as information) and interaction design (product as functionality).

While interaction design (“IXD”) concerns how a system responds to user interactions, information architecture (“IA”) is the arrangement of content to facilitate understanding.

For anyone familiar with the famous Polar Bear book, information architecture defines how content is organized, grouped, ordered, and presented.

Here the lines become blurred between what content strategists, designers and product owners do.

Before the rise of UX, information architecture was a prominent field. As information architecture fell into the responsibility of designers, content strategy was forming into a new practice.

Then, the shift from UX design to product design has stretched the breadth of responsibilities of designers. This has created the opportunity for content strategists to uphold the practice of information architecture.

From the way I see it, content strategists are the new information architects.

Under the context of product as information, content strategy can inform how an experience can be categorized, labeled, navigated, and organized to help users move through information spaces efficiently and effectively.

Related Content Strategy Deliverables

  • Site map or site architecture diagram
  • Card sorting
  • Taxonomy & metadata
  • Linking strategy (entry / exit points)

The Skeleton Plane of Content Strategy

This skeleton is the blueprint of an experience right before it takes final form. At the visual layer, this can be how elements are arranged so that users can interact with a system. For conversational experiences, this can be the sequence of messages that’s loaded into a chatbot.

The skeleton plane is made up of three parts: interface design under product as functionality, navigation design under product as information and information design, which extends across the plane.

Jesse James Garret distinguishes between the three as such:

  • If it involves providing users with the ability to do things, it’s interface design.
  • If it involves providing users with the ability to go places, it’s navigation design.
  • If it involves communicating ideas to the user, it’s information design.

While I’ve been positioning content strategy as part of the product as information side of the 5 Planes model, some crossover happens here. Content strategy touches all aspects of the skeleton plane, with special regards to how the presentation of information facilitates understanding:

  • Interface design: enable users to do things through text, instructional and explanatory copy. While content strategists may not be dealing with UI elements, text makes so much of an interface that content strategy is inextricably tied to UI design.
  • Navigation design: enable users to go places through the design of global navigation, onboarding flows and menu design
  • Information design: communicate ideas to the user through messaging, content formatting and “micro” information architecture

These aspects of the skeleton plane can be thought of as expressions of the structure plane, e.g. navigation is based on the information architecture work thinking done at the structure plane.

Wherever reading or comprehension is required, content strategists can provide guidance on the cognitive load of content.

Should this wall of text be broken up? Does this page need to exist? What should be the first thing that users see, vs below the fold?

Related Content Strategy Deliverables

  • Content layout
  • Content maps and wireframes
  • Navigation design: menu, labels
  • Page hierarchy

The Surface Plane of Content Strategy

Finally, we reach the surface plane. This is where the content meets users’ senses; text on a page, prompts from a smart speaker or color scheme of a design.

Regardless of whether we are dealing product as information or product as functionality, our concern here is the same: the sensory experience of the finished product.

One might think that this is the sole domain of design, and where the job of content strategy is done.

But what happens if that content is unreadable? Hard to consume? What if the content’s a disorganized mess? Content strategists are still responsible for the content.

Content strategists can benefit from basic design rules to understand how content can be arranged and consumed. Even a basic familiarity with design principles like C.R.A.P. (consistency, repetition, alignment, proximity) can help a content strategist inform designs, and give appropriate feedback during design reviews.

A content designer…needs to have the same grasp of design theory as the interaction designer they’re partnered with. – James Reith, Content Designer

In fact, there’s a growing niche called content design that brings a specific focus on “how to display information the way the audience wants it, at the time that they want it” (Sarah Richards, Content Design Book).

Related Content Strategy Deliverables

  • Interface copy
  • Content formatting
  • Style, brand, voice & tone guides
  • Typography in relation to content consumption: font-sizes, line height, spacing

The 5 planes model: helping define the field of content strategy

The 5 Planes are not perfect. Sometimes the elements aren’t that distinguishable from one another. Depending on the project, the process is not always linear from strategy all the up through surface.

But it’s a model that’s proved to be a resilient reference in building experiences. Baked in 5 Planes is Jesse James’ Garrett’s appreciation for content, and the idea of content-first design.

I highly encourage everyone who works on digital projects to pick up The Elements of User Experience.

Reading this book with new eyes helped me clarify the field of content strategy, how it relates to the more established design disciplines, and opportunities for collaboration across roles.

I hope you find it just as useful.

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