» ISTCPublications and ResourcesArticlesContextualisation and molecular content
Members: Time to renew your memberships. You can pay online (remember to log in first).

Contextualisation and molecular content

Andy McDonald and Toni Ressaire look at creating user journeys.

This article was published originally in Communicator. Communicator is the authoritative, award winning, journal for UK technical communicators. It is home to high quality, objective, and peer-reviewed features – current, relevant, and in-depth.

What is molecular content?

Deriving a definition from molecular science and tracing it back to the earliest Cartesian thinking of the 18th century, a molecule of content is the smallest stable autonomous part of content, with a unique purpose. Molecules, of varying purpose, can be built into stable compounds of content in order to form meaning and provide a purpose. Compound assembly responds to a context where the context itself is a matrix of observed variables.


Virtual marketing is built around content for personas. A buyer persona is a semi-fictional representation of your ideal customer based on market research and real data about your existing customers [from hubspot.com]. Personas are identified by age, job, behaviour, interests and above all, motivation, pain points and triggers. For edc, a software product for which we’ve been creating content strategy, the personas are clearly identified, see Figure 1. (easydoccontents.com)

Figure 1. Personas

User Journeys

The user journey is a series of personal experiences based on the user’s evolving context. As applied to user experience (UX), it may be defined as a path of actions that a user performs to reach a goal. Each individual journey can be very different. No two users are alike, so user journeys remain unpredictable. In the gaming industry these are referred to a “scenarios”. Let’s consider how a user plays a video game.

Let’s say you are playing a game in which the ultimate goal is to slay the dragon and rescue the princess. If you’ve ever played video games, you know that there are certain pre-defined actions that can get you to the princess, but along the way, you have many options of how to reach the princess and how to slay the dragon. But video game designers offer us something else: additional scenarios, some of which have nothing to do with slaying the dragon, but are designed to keep the user journey interesting. Within the video game, you find yourself in a dungeon chamber. Leading from the chamber are three doors. You, the player, decide which door you will open and walk through. But you also find some swords in the chamber. The swords are present as contextual clues that you will need these to slay the dragon. Maybe you’ve already been in this chamber and you have a few swords in your game inventory. You, the player, decide whether you want to collect more swords or enter through one of the doors. The dragon is likely to be behind one of those doors but another door may lead you to another chamber where you can find a flaming sword. This is another contextual clue. At this point you assume that a flaming sword is a more powerful weapon than a regular sword and you may want to collect this before you find that dragon. You can imagine how you may continue the game.

As a designer, you can’t predict users’ exact choices and the order in which they will occur. A designer can only offer options, and depending on the user’s persona and context, let them create their own user journey. What a designer can do is create the scenarios that users may choose. A designer can create the dungeon and the chambers and offer swords and flaming swords, creating the parameters that will ultimately allow the user to achieve the goal of slaying the dragon and rescuing the princess. But the designer won’t decide how users will reach that goal. Information delivery must consider the user journey and offer scenarios to help users reach their goals. But that information must be created in a way that allows the user to create his own journey.

But how do you write content in such an unpredictable environment? The rest of this article takes you through our own journey of how we arrived at a model for creating and delivering molecular content that considers the user context.

How do you write contextualised and molecular content?

As we began writing this article, we followed our usual pattern of content planning. We first wrote an outline that included subheadings to organise the content. Next, we started adding sentences and paragraphs.

In our most recent tradition of content planning, we could liken this process to topic-based authoring. Theoretically, we could rearrange the subheadings in this article until we have the flow that we think best meets the reader’s expectations or needs. Perhaps we would need to create some transitions here and there, primarily because this article will likely be read in a linear fashion. But imagine we were developing this same information for a mobile app and wanted to contextualise the content. Let’s use this scenario to strategise how the information will be written.

First, we need to create personas. In the linear version of this article, think of this as the target audience. Even if there is more than one target, all of them will read the same content. In a contextualised scenario, imagine personas who may use this information. For the sake of simplicity, let’s create two personas: technical communicators and software developers. Rather than developing one content scenario, we would develop two. One of those scenarios would speak directly to the needs of developers (needs already defined in the developer persona). What information would he need to understand contextualised and molecular content and why it should matter to him? The second scenario, of course, would speak to the specific needs of the technical communicator persona. The information developed would be contextualised to the function of the reader.

Figure 2. Two personas

Of course, some of the information would cross over and apply to each persona. But we’ll get to that in a minute.

Now that we have identified information that is contextualised to a persona, we need to think about “how” the user will access the content. He won’t be reading a linear article. He’ll be using a mobile app, and he has choices.

At this point, we don’t know what choices the user will make in accessing information. All we can do is imagine how this well-developed and researched persona will decide to proceed. So, we must create a user journey that offers the user options. Within the user journey, the user creates his own context.

In our imaginary scenario of developing this content contextually, we must contextualise based on user function and then write molecular content that the user can access at any given moment within his context and along his journey.

So, how do we do this? How do we anticipate and plan for the user journey?


When we started researching customer journeys, we spent some time looking at game theory and how game designers develop what they call “scenarios”. We discovered that some game designers use simple mapping tools to create foundational scenarios. Hmm – that could work using molecular content to develop a user journey. In fact, we already had the ideas of personas, customer journeys and molecular content in place. Mindmaps gave us the missing piece as to “how” to plan customer journeys based on personas using molecular content. Using a mindmap (Figure 3), you can imagine, anticipate, and offer content options, adding molecular content to each step of the user journey.

Figure 3. Mindmap

Mindmapping requires you to know your personas well and imagine how they “might” access information. It also requires that you anticipate what information a user may need at a given moment in a specific context. And here’s where we get back to crossover information between personas. Creating a content mindmap allows you to see where certain information can be re-used and where contexts may intersect.

While you can mindmap user journeys using old-fashioned paper and pen, a digital tool is most useful because as you create scenarios you find you often need to rethink certain parts of the journey and move things around. We recommend using a digital mindmapping tool.

Contextualised help in software

We work in software, so applying these same principles, we started our first contextualised help project earlier this year using edc, a product by a Paris-based company called TECH’advantage that allows us to create contextualised help and publish directly to the software. The product launch was in March, and our goal was to use the product itself to create the contextualised help.

The question mark icon (see figure 4.), implanted by developers, is where we need to attach contextual help. In this first version, five types of help are provided and combined. Each one can have different purposes and writing styles and most of them can be found on a support portal.

Figure 4. What we had to document

While working on this project, we were able to crystallise our theories about how contextualisation and molecular content can be developed and implemented to create a user journey. Our first go was not a success. After writing several “topics” for the contextualised help in the software, we discovered one serious problem: our content was not molecular enough.

Figure 5. Contextualised results – A. First result

Figure 5. Contextualised results – B. End result

As you can see from the image Figure 5A, we offered too much content to the user within the software. One problem is obvious: it’s too much information for the screen. What’s more, we were paraphrasing the user interface (UI). This screenshot was taken on a large-screen monitor. Imagine if the user had been viewing this from a mobile device.

The second problem was less obvious. We didn’t take into account the persona and user journey. Why would we presume that this particular user, in this context, would want or need all of this information?

We went back to the drawing board, or rather to our mindmap, and started again. This time, we wrote only the most basic information that the user would need for the particular task. And that information was typically not a “how to” but a “why”. What is this function and why might you want to use it? Then we added links to a support portal where the user could find the “how to” and other information, if needed. The point was that we originally tried to tell the user what journey to take. In our second attempt (Figure 5B), we allowed the user to create his own journey.

Figure 6. This image is taken from ‘Content sensing and Information 4.0’ in the tcworld e-magazine
of November 2016: www.tcworld.info/e-magazine/content-strategies/article/content-sensing-andinformation-

Taking our own customer journeys

A content creator can only anticipate and create offerings. As humans we think in monodimensional terms. But machines can “think” in unlimited dimensions.

For now, the content creator can create contextualised and even molecular content at a mono-dimensional level using a mindmap. But as we move toward automation, artificial intelligence, and the Internet of Things, we will rely on machines to offer contextualised information along a user-created journey. The need to develop molecular information becomes even more critical. Machines can take the molecules of information and develop new scenarios.

Figure 6 illustrates how learning paths and reading paths are unpredictable.


Empathy is essential to understanding real user journeys. The way we define user experience will move from marketing content to all other sorts of content, especially that around software. Molecular content will be designed and reused in any place along the user journey for which we won’t have a static map. Chatbots will change the face of user support. This will have a huge impact on the way we work.


Chatbots. A computer program designed to
simulate conversation with human users, especially
over the Internet.

Information 4.0. The characteristics are:

  • Molecular – no documents, just information molecules
  • Dynamic – continuously updated
  • Offered rather than delivered
  • Ubiquitous, online, searchable and findable
  • Spontaneous – triggered by contexts
  • Profiled automatically

User experience (UX). The overall experience of
a person using a product such as a website or
computer application, especially in terms of how
easy or pleasing it is to use.

User interface (UI). The means by which the user
and a computer system interact, in particular the
use of input devices and software.

Further reading

McKinsey Quarterly July 2016: Where machines could replace humans—and where they can’t (yet) www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/digital-mckinsey/our-insights/where-machinescould-replace-humans-and-where-they-cant-yet (accessed April 2017)

About Information 4.0: http://information4zero.org

Articles by Ronald Ashri, Technical Director at Deeson:

Gallon R and McDonald A (2016) ‘Content sensing and Information 4.0’ tcworld e-magazine November 2016. www.tcworld.info/e-magazine/content-strategies/article/content-sensing-andinformation-40 (accessed April 2017)

Andy McDonald trained as a social psychologist. He moved into software in the late 1980’s and brought with him a humanist approach. Currently, he works on innovative systems for user-oriented content design. Since 2015 he is extremely involved in Information 4.0 as a vector for understanding and adapting to the impact of robotics, conversational tools and AI on the way we consider and design information.

E: andy.mcdonald@tech-advantage.com

W: www.doccontents.com/en/home

T: @AndyMcD_TECH

Toni Ressaire studied psychology before eventually moving into journalism and then technical communication. Specialising in software, she is a consultant with a non-traditional approach to tech comm.

E: toni.ressaire@pub.ink

First appeared in Communicator Summer 2017