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Which way do you like it–Top down, or bottom up?

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Okay, first of all, get your mind out of the gutter. It’s not that kind of discussion.

But it is a discussion about content strategy–because, you know, this is a tech comm blog.

Here’s where I’m going with this.  I had a situation at work that prompted my thinking and further discussion with several other people about this topic, because I’m trying to explore how content strategists approach, well, content strategy.

For me, the way that I approach content strategy is starting with the big picture.  You need to start with what are you trying to achieve as the end goal. Then, I look at the “adverb” questions to determine if that end goal answers them. What I mean by the “adverb” questions are:

  • Who is your audience? Who needs this content/information? Who is going to use it?
  • What content needs to be included? What is the goal of the person who wants to use it? What are they looking for?
  • Where are they going to find the content?
  • Why do they need the content? Why would they come to this site for that content?
  • When would they need this content?
  • How would they obtain this content/information?
  • How much content do they need to absorb to be satisfied? How much content is actually necessary for their needs to be remedied?

This doesn’t just apply to marketing content, which is usually the “model” for this. When working for my last job, I worked on a lot of repository-type sites for departments that weren’t internally selling anything. They just needed that right-info-right-here-right-now experience. That’s what all websites–or any content that’s put out there–needs to address.

But I slightly digress. So anyway, at work, we’re in the process of figuring out how to deliver some internal content that’s not really been formally organized, at least by modern standards. There’s lots of internal documentation, but for one topic I was researching, there were distinctly four pieces of content on the same topic, all written within the last two years, all of them correct, but no cohesion or indication that perhaps one was based off of another. When looking at the big picture beyond my own project, I realized that this would be a great project to apply DITA XML and create content chunks to start reusing information, provide consistency, easy updating, multiple outputs, etc. If you know about DITA stuff, you know why DITA is good for certain kinds of documentation, and I saw this as an opportunity.

Speaking with my colleagues, there have been two trains of thought. The first way would be to look at things the way I’ve usually looked at creating a content strategy–looking at the big picture, and breaking down things until you got it down to granular level, retrofitting current content as appropriate, weeding out what’s not needed anymore, reworking items, and doing a gap analysis to identify what additional content is needed. It makes sense, right?

The alternative view is approaching the strategy from the bottom up. Other colleagues suggested that we need to create and reconfigure all the detailed, smaller pieces of content, and build upwards towards that “big picture”, creating the “buckets” as we create and reconfigure the content we have. And if we happen to identify a content gap along the way? We’ll compensate or fill in the gap as appropriate.

Somehow, that latter just hasn’t sat with me very well. The latter, while it could be done, is a short term answer, in my opinion. It’s putting a bandaid on a wound rather than treating a condition that needs better control and having a long term treatment plan. The long term plan is “remission” and maintenance that can be sustainable and controllable. That’s only done when understanding the big picture and drilling down.

But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’m not seeing things clearly for that other perspective. For now, we’re working with the short term, bottom up strategy, with the goal that once we can get past the short term stuff, we can try to concentrate on the long term stuff (top down). Now, I understand that there are circumstances where the bottom up approach does work. For example, in knitting, it’s usually pretty common to knit a sweater from the bottom and work your way up. But even then, it’s about building the foundation.  So, in my content top down, we start with the foundation, and figure out all the details.

I don’t know. My brain is topsy-turvy over this in trying to sort this out and make some sense out of the best approach.  What does the tech comm and content strategy hive mind think? Include your comments below. Let’s discuss!



Danielle M. Villegas is a technical communicator who currently employed at Cox Automotive, Inc., and freelances as her own technical communications consultancy, Dair Communications. She has worked at the International Refugee Committee, MetLife, Novo Nordisk, BASF North America, Merck, and Deloitte, with a background in content strategy, web content management, social media, project management, e-learning, and client services. Danielle is best known in the technical communications world for her blog,, which has continued to flourish since it was launched during her graduate studies at NJIT in 2012. She has presented webinars and seminars for Adobe, the Society for Technical Communication (STC), the IEEE ProComm, TCUK (ISTC) and at Drexel University’s eLearning Conference. She has written articles for the STC Intercom, STC Notebook, the Content Rules blog, and The Content Wrangler as well. She is very active in the STC, as a former chapter president for the STC-Philadelphia Metro Chapter, and is currently serving on three STC Board committees. You can learn more about Danielle on LinkedIn at, on Twitter @techcommgeekmom, or through her blog. All content is the owner's opinions, and does not reflect those of her employers past or present.

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