Create meaningful content for humans and machines

You don’t need to look hard to find people talking about the tightening relationship between humanity and artificial intelligence (AI). The conversation is everywhere these days—in podcasts, the news, and articles across LinkedIn. I’ve spent some time thinking about this topic in the context of communication. And I’d like to make one key copyedit to the greatest concern I see in these posts and articles: “When you begin to create meaningful content, do you focus on humans or machines?” You don’t focus on humans or machines. You invest your time in humans and machines. It’s not one or the other; it’s both.

Also read, “Do yourself a favor: Talk to your consumers!”

Now, I’m not saying you should create a marketing plan for both the humans and the droids you’re trying to reach with your next campaign. We’re not at a Star Wars-level yet with sentient machines. But, you can’t develop meaningful, human-centered content without acknowledging the machines that your users will engage with first—from CRMs to customer service chatbots to AI assistants in hospital rooms to good ol’ websites. Creating content for humans and machines is all about improving user experiences for everyone, no matter the technology they are engaging with. So, Think of machines as you develop, structure, and publish content. You’ll find you’ve produced better experiences and built better brand relationships with the humans you’re looking to reach.


Our new three-sided relationship

Today, humans engage with content that is developed through a triangular relationship between other humans and machines. At one corner is a human that is a content creator—that’s you and your brand. At the second corner is the machine that propagates and curates the content, and often acts as the “window” to your brand. This machine may have some AI, or it may not. At the third corner of this triangle is a human who digests the content you created. Sometimes you and the other human talk directly to each other (think research, direct customer interactions), and sometimes you don’t.

I’ve found that one of the three participants in this relationship is often not fully planned for. If you’re not anticipating the machine as the middleman in your “human-centered” conversation, the human at the other end of this game of telephone is going to get a garbled mess, no matter how intelligent—AI or otherwise—the machine is. Similarly, if you’re too focused on the machine and not on the human, your interaction will feel too mechanical. This will prevent you from producing a delightful experience for your customer.


Using design to create meaningful content

On the surface, focusing on both humans and machines may sound like a lot to take on. But the first step to enabling better communication between humans and machines—thus, better interactions for humans—is really about making a renewed commitment to the basics of design.

Doubling-down on these five design principles can help you create meaningful content for humans and machines.


1. Create content with personas in mind.

This is all about observing your users, knowing what they want and need, understanding how they act, and tying that all together into a person-based profile. You may not make a persona for “Alexa” to represent the AI assistant you’ll be using on your project. But you should think about how “Susan,” one of your key personas, interacts with (or avoids) technology like AI assistants today. How are Susan’s goals supported or hindered by the AI assistant? Does the technology within the AI assistant have requirements that need to be considered alongside Susan’s goals? Think of both types of goals early and often when developing content.


2. Use a systems approach.

Using a systems approach means rigorously following rules of structure when developing content—for example, consistently using the right heading levels in a website. Structured content makes your point digestible to both humans and machines. To effectively reach both audiences, it’s essential to break a story into the right chunks and use meaningful patterns, like consistent nomenclature (both written and in code).


3. Consider the needs of all users.

As communicators, we often focus on the needs of “key audiences” and forget the needs of everyone else. But by prioritizing those you may think of as outliers, you’ll likely find opportunities to create a better user experience for all users—and improve their relationships with machines at the same time. Take accessibility, for example. Accessibility guidelines like WCAG 2.0 and 2.1 are intended to help make accommodations on the Internet for people with disabilities. But accessibility guidelines are also crucial to improving how machines read and share content with humans. In the end, improving the experience for groups that weren’t originally “key audiences” provides better, more consistent experiences that benefit all Internet users.


4. Re-examine what’s “nice-to-have.”

During the design process, stakeholders often get to prioritize important features and benefits. And the process encourages stakeholders to challenge their assumptions about what is really necessary within a project. Is this feature a priority because it’s important to delivering a great user experience? Or is it important because a VP wants it? For example, Search engine optimization (SEO) often gets the boot in favor of other, less user-centric features. But SEO is critical for connecting users with your content through a mechanical interface. It’s the language and translation that machines need to point users in the right direction.


5. Prioritize clarity.

Developers use all kinds of backend magic to make a beautiful or engaging digital experience. However, unclear, overly complex, jargon-y content is still going to be cumbersome to both humans and machines. The more you use plain language, the more universal your message will be to silicone- and carbon-based life forms alike.


As digital capabilities grow and change, the relationship between humans and machines will too. It is important to remember that humans and good design are part of that smarter, more digital future. The software, AI, and machines that do such amazing things are still code or silicone developed by a person to support tasks for another person. If we keep the person behind the technology in mind, and if we support that relationship through clear communication and a transparent design process, we’ll produce better results for the consumers at the other end.

Up next: “How to use personas to develop your brand voice”