Cognitive, Schmognitive

A few weeks ago, while in the throes of manuscript editing, I wrote a quick post about what I was doing that week. I did so to help demystify content strategy to people who want to know, as the NYC CS Meetup group would have it, what content strategists do all day.

In the post, I mentioned something I’d made for a client project: a diagram that traces the mental path we want to encourage a particular group of site visitors to take. Not specific interactions, pages or tools, but a process of gradual engagement with ideas, eventually leading to the decision to act. I’d never made this particular thing before, and I’d never seen anything quite like it elsewhere.

I can’t show you the thing I made, but here’s an example that I sketched out for an imaginary conservation organization that wants to educate students about habitat loss and related activism when they visit the site to complete school assignments.

Getting from “Pandas eat bamboo!” to “Habitat destruction sucks—how can I help?”

Pretty simple, right? A project with a dozen or a hundred pages and only a few target audiences wouldn’t need something like this. But before I could proceed with the content recommendation for this large, complex, and intellectually crunchy project, I needed to distill all the things we’d been saying and thinking about this audience’s progression through the site’s ideas.

I made it as an internal tool, but when I showed a dim iPhone photo of it to client stakeholders, they found useful, so I ended up including it in my content recommendations.

A Diagram Named Sue

When I showed the client my sketched-out version on my phone and then hastily re-drew it on their whiteboard, I called it a “user engagement model,” which is reasonably accurate, but also jargony. In my blog post, I called it:

a cognitive model that translates pieces of the organization’s mission into a conceptual blueprint for deepening user engagement with the site

That’s both vague and awkward, but it does describe  the thing and what it does—or at least, what it did for me on this project. A Google image search for “cognitive model” produces a variety of hideously formatted diagrams about how people think; the one I made is also about how people think, and specifically how we imagine them thinking their way through the information presented on a website.

But because I didn’t have a non-proprietary example to post, the mention produced confusion. So just to be clear, I’m not talking about a mental model. Nor am I talking about “the features of an information system,” as one commenter suggested.

Have You Seen This Boy? He Is Very Ugly.

I’m certain that I haven’t created anything new by drawing up this diagram when I needed it, and I expect to continue using the tool on other projects that need a nudge toward clarity.

So here’s my question for you, internet: Have you made or used something like this? And if you did, how did you use it? (And what did you call it, anyway?)


Speaking of pandas, go read “An Elephant Crackup?” It’s the single best thing I’ve ever read from the NYT. Since I read it several months ago, few days have passed when I haven’t thought of it.

10 thoughts on “Cognitive, Schmognitive

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Cognitive, Schmognitive : --

  2. I’ve created something similar in the past. We called it a communication strategy. It outlined the behaviors we would see if our messages and tactics were successful.

    I like your template as a global model–ideas > context > connection > action is a strong blueprint many orgs could find very useful if they were to consider and evaluate their content against it.

  3. Hey Erin,

    Love the diagram. It reminds me of Josh Porter’s usage lifecycle diagram, which describes the states a user moves through as they progressively engage with a site/app. Josh doesn’t call what he does “content strategy”, but I suspect a lot of his work involves CS. E.g. he talks about messaging a lot.

    What’s interesting about your diagram is that it does have an explicit aim, the user taking action. In that way it’s similar to Josh’s web-app-focused tools.

  4. @Paul — Are you referring to Revelle’s 1986 “Cues, Tendency, Action” model, which was a simple reparameterization of Atkinson & Birch’s 1970 Dynamics of Action model from a quadratic to a differential equation capable of integrating action inertia? I disagree.

    This is clearly a diagram representing a single cognitive phenomenon or process, rather than an attempt to, say, plot the state space of the dynamic interaction of mutually incompatible action tendencies.

  5. Similarly, have used similar models for communications strategies, and content strategies. The challenge I’ve found is to try and move away from linear process maps, and incorporate either circular or 3D-modelling, so that the CTA isn’t the sole end-game.

    Ongoing interaction is difficult to illustrate, as are the connectivity relationships that might (or might not) be enhanced as a result of the action being taken. The challenge, as with all strategic communication, is in keeping the explanation – or, in this case, diagram – as simple, straightforward and memorable as possible…

  6. I call this type of diagram the context strategy in content strategy Erin. I can’t believe I missed out on this post for this long, but I’ve been doing some graphics like this for Government clients that need pass through from .govs to .orgs. and then to mobile. LOVE this type of stuff, because it creates the “Ah Ha” moments for stakeholders.

    Great post.

  7. Thanks to all for suggestions and references.

    A depiction of the intellectual or emotional changes ideally produced by educational material is well outside anything I’d consider a “call to action”—but communication and context are certainly both at the heart of the idea.

    Great points, Matthew, about trying to get away from the linear model. Something the above diagram doesn’t help with is showing that there’s a continuum of mental change…and when we work with educational content, ANY progress along that continuum is a success, whether there’s measurable “action” or not.

    Do any of you have made similar have any examples of your versions that you could share?

  8. Also:

    Are you referring to Revelle’s 1986 “Cues, Tendency, Action” model, which was a simple reparameterization of Atkinson & Birch’s 1970 Dynamics of Action model from a quadratic to a differential equation capable of integrating action inertia? I disagree.

    Best comment on the internet. Snarf.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *