By Karl Montevirgen, special to The Content Wrangler

As content creators and consumers, we’re all aware of the multiple dynamics at play when it comes to viewing and creating content. Content has a kind of flow.  It directs movement within and between pieces of content, exhibiting diverse rhythms, densities, and forms. Content flow, as we perceive it, plays a significant role in shaping the reader/viewer’s experience. Ultimately, the impact of this experience can be critical, as it often marks the difference between success and failure in a given content enterprise.

Let’s take a closer look at content flow, specifically what it is, how it functions, and how it can be shaped.

Editor’s note: See The Language of Content Strategy for an alternative definition and usage of the term content flow.

What is Content Flow?

Content flow refers to the structural and conceptual movements implied within a single or combined piece of content.

It can be broken down like this:

  1. Content implies structural movement (start here, end there).
  2. Content also implies movement in concepts/ideas (start with this line of thought, end with that line of thought or action).
  3. Content flow is made up of distinct movements occurring within a single piece of content and between different sets of content.

Good content flow facilitates a reader’s movement through sections of content and the ideas expressed within them. It makes content more engaging, lighter to read and digest, and easier to retain. Bad content flow has the opposite effect.

Here’s a familiar scenario: you come across a website that appears well-structured. The content seems well-written, graphics are attractive, and the information provided is complete. But, something about it doesn’t jell. The  content seems to clash or interfere with itself, and the navigation doesn’t seem very fluid. In the end, you can’t seem to understand or remember what the site was all about.

What’s happening here? How is it that a well-structured presentation composed of well-written content isn’t working? One likely culprit is the relationship between content types and content segments, namely text content-to-graphic content, content-to-content, and the sequence of movements in between. Although content structure (i.e. style guide) plays a static role in organizing and ‘containing’ content, it nevertheless envelops dynamic elements that exceed it.

Dynamic content includes:

  • A single piece of content alone, when engaged,
  • The relationship between content to content, and
  • Individual viewers/readers with their powers of attention, interpretation, and retention.

Ultimately, what you have are different energies of movement and counter-movement. Although a viewer’s choice of what to read, in what sequence, and its interpretation is beyond the control of the content creator, the arrangement of content with its implied movements can still make a big difference in setting the stage of engagement.

Content contra Content: Counterpoint

Perhaps approaching content flow from a different angle and discipline might add some insight into how it works. Let’s take the concept of “flow” from a musical perspective. There is a particular practice in Western music (one that was very prominent during the late 17th and early 18th century) called counterpoint. This term refers to a technique in which two or more independent melodies are combined (point against point, melody against melody). Melodies in counterpoint have their own sense of direction, rhythm, and flow. Yet when combined, the melodies work together harmoniously. If you can imagine creating a melody and then setting another one against it, you will be able appreciate how difficult it is to do this successfully.

Dj mixing in night club
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • LinkedIn
  • Pinterest

The combination of multiple forms of content isn’t that much different. Each piece of content has its own unique set of attributes. It has different spatial limits (a starting point and an ending point). It has varying degrees of density which imply different experiences of time and effort. It contains its own specific message or line of thought. Each content piece has its own stylistic genre and form of utterance — the sales pitch, description, call to action, disclaimer, etc. — all of which can be phrased in different ways. It has its own sense of rhythm—in utterance and ideas—and tempo, both of which can move faster or slower depending on what is being conveyed, and how it is being conveyed.

If each piece of content has its own unique attributes and sense of flow, what happens when you combine content? Is it easy to get stuck on one section at the expense of the other sections? Do the content sections differ so much that readers feel they have to retain or juggle concepts in order to comprehend the whole? Does the content flow seem to ping-pong or deflect from one section to another? To be fair, user experience is somewhat subjective and will differ.  Even so, there are a few basic principles we can keep in mind when creating and assessing the flow of content.

Content Flow Comparisons

Let’s look at a comparative example between Ninja Trader versus MultiCharts. Both companies develop trading software which customers can buy and sell financial derivatives (futures contracts) in various markets. Though now a brokerage, Ninja Trader has been one of the most popular and widely used trading platforms for several years. MultiCharts, on the other hand, is a runner-up that is quickly gaining ground in the trading software industry.

Example 1: Ninja Trader:

Screen Shot 2016-02-11 at 2.13.32 PM
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • LinkedIn
  • Pinterest

Notice the two implied lines of motion converging at the middle point. The suggested motion combined with simplicity of style makes for ease of movement and minimal effort on the part of the viewer. Company description, differentiation features (cost and award winning technology), and calls to action are easily identifiable.

The use of minimal text increases emphasis on the message. The words were carefully selected to include a statement of quality and/or tenet (“Trading Simplified”), an identifier of function (“Brokerage”), a statement of low cost (“$0.53 per contract”), a statement of status or accolades (“Award Winning Platform”), and a call to action (“Use It Free”).  The second line on the right announces a link to view low pricing (“View Commissions”), a reinforcing statement of low cost (“Low Cost Brokerage”), and another call to action (“Open Account”). Note that both lines are color coded to suggest motion and also to establish better flow between text and graphics.

The term “brokerage” marks the convergence point supported by large font and uppercase letters. Though the statement of the price of $0.53 per contract has a much smaller font, the color coding attaches it to the line of sight guaranteeing its exposure. The rhythm and tempo of the content narrative is sparse and quick as the conclusion (call to action) is arrived at with minimal (informational) hold-up.

Culturally, there is also something at play. There is an image of a Caucasian man smiling, which implies an image of the ideal “satisfied” customer, an image symbolizing the people who work for the company, a “smirk” symbolizing success, or an “edge” that leads to success. This image is given prominence in both placement and size. The image supporting the term “low cost”  is that of a woman who appears to be a minority. Her image is much smaller. This has cultural implications that must be brought to one’s attention since it directly or indirectly makes a cultural statement whether intended or not.

Example 2:  MultiCharts:

Screen Shot 2016-02-11 at 2.14.41 PM
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • LinkedIn
  • Pinterest

MultiCharts is an excellent trading platform with numerous functionalities that meet a wide range of retail traders’ needs. Encapsulating this message within a limited space, however, can be very tricky. There are trade-offs to be made in terms of what is and what is not stated. Let’s take a closer look at their home page.

Imagine, for a moment, what this site might look like without the colored boxes. What catches your eye? Is it the multi-colored circular image on the right which connects with the logo on the left and the name of the company below the logo? Where do you begin? There seems to be an implied line of movement here, but what information is latched on to it?

Let’s start with the image in the black box on the right. It gives you percentages separated by colors, but what do the percentages signify? Is the meaning or purpose clear? You see a call to action (to try or buy) that comes at you immediately given the prominence of the image, but it either comes too soon, or it’s a placeholder for action once you’ve read the rest of the site.

Another prominent section is the bulleted section below the company name as seen in the purple box. As an industry insider, I’d assume that the featured technical functionalities differentiate the platform from its competitors. But even for an industry insider, the information provided is partial and unclear. After a few bullets, you can see that there are 70+ more features. Aside from having multiple features, what else might this tell the reader? Perhaps we can find out, but we will have to exit the page. There is still much more content to read in order to piece together the overall message.

There are two sets of navigational tabs, found in the top and middle of the page. How does that direct the “sequence” of your actions? Perhaps you may find yourself tempted to click one of the tab links for more specific information, but does that mean you will miss out on something important on the home page?

In the yellow box in the middle, you find information about the company. It’s an award-winning platform, as it states in the first sentence. The statement of accolades seems well-hidden. Perhaps this was intended, or perhaps it was an oversight.

Let’s stop here. What I am trying to point out is that the content flow in this example suggests a puzzle to be solved. It offers clues to explore, remember, return to, and finally piece together. In addition to this, the density of content establishes a rhythm and tempo that is slow, laborious, and disjointed. It takes time to solve and assemble puzzles.

Five Concepts to Help You Shape Content Flow

So what can we do to shape content flow? The answer is that there are multiple ways to approach this, and it varies depending on the circumstances and content goals. It may be a strategic concern, but its realization takes place in the tactical sphere. However, there are a few general concepts to keep in mind that might be helpful:

  1. Content implies a territory.
    Content has both a spatial location and a centralized set of ideas–a “territory.” That territory has its own form and mode of articulation through which it expresses a message. Depending on the emphasis of the value placed on that message, its size, appearance, and placement matters considerably. What kind of emphasis do you want to place on a given message? How should you express it? In what form, and why?
  2. Content has its own sense of gravity.
    Figuratively speaking, as a “territory”, content has a gravity that “pulls” the viewer toward the ideas expressed, and the space containing those ideas. Some content sections will have a greater sense of pull, depending on the interest of the viewer, the compelling nature of the message, and its placement alongside other content sections that can either distract from or reinforce it. Where do you place a given piece of content and why? What will that placement do to the overall presentation or flow?
  3. Content demands its own unique time for engagement. 
    Should content be densely or lightly concentrated? How should you balance the density of “text” against the density of ideas? After all, you can create heavy text with light ideas, or light text with heavy ideas. Think of it this way–you have a scarcity of space and your viewer probably has a scarcity of time. Content demands time. How can you make the best use of limited space and time to seamlessly and effectively deliver your message?
  4. Think movement and counter-movement. 
    If you understand these first three points, then you get a sense that there are potentially multiple and diverse flows happening simultaneously. A viewer may not read everything simultaneously (although it is possible if the content is sparse enough), but think of the overall effect of the content which can be experienced as a cumulative impression or understanding of the material, and the actual sequence of engagement. The flow of movement and clarity of the message is deeply affected by the placement of content sections and the independent movements they imply, as shown in our examples above. Again, it operates like a counterpoint, and getting each piece to fit harmoniously depends on how the content is composed and arranged.
  5. Think of content flow in terms of a multi-dimensional narrative.
    Ultimately, you are telling a story which you are hoping materializes in a change of thought or action on the part of the viewer. Your story may have just one or a few parts, but its material features are numerous and heterogeneous. They can operate dimensionally, divergently, and in a non-linear fashion. Your core message tells a story and has a sequence, but so does your graphic arrangement, content sections, links, pages, etc. It all affects the sequence of actions and continuity of the overall message.

Content flow is a tricky thing to manage. Flow is much less perceptible than the content that generates it. Managing content flow requires the ability to think around or between content, to think of content not only as a “thing”, but as a set of intensities that compose it. Like architecture, where a building is defined as much by the people who use it as by its physical attributes, content is defined by the way in which viewers engage, experience, and are affected by it.

Content flow determines the success or failure of content’s ability to engage and affect.