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September 01, 2020

How to discover your content’s hidden mental model

Official(made by Sanity team)

By Ronald Aveling & Knut Melvær

How do you kickstart a content modeling exercise? All you gotta do is figure out scope, agree on words, unearth your content's hidden mental model, and decide where to stop. It’s not as hard as it sounds. Let's find out how...

Earlier in our journey through the world of content modeling we learned what content modeling is and why it’s so valuable.

We’ll now learn how to model content. But before we dig into specifics we need to wrap our head around how mental models work (well, at least a bit).

It can be hard to talk about the ins and outs of content modeling with theory alone. So to make things easier we’re introducing a use case to provide context for all the choices we’ll be making. We have a soft spot for sweet things... so we chose a candy manufacturer!


Introducing CandiCorp

CandiCorp manufactures the world’s tastiest and most interesting treats. Their primary revenue is through wholesale sales, which go through a network of global distribution partners. Partners receive an annual product catalog of sweet deals every year, delivered in print.

Why they’re making changes

They’ve identified a range of inefficiencies in the way their marketing and admin content is managed. They’d like to get more out of their product catalogs, manage an internal staff directory, and trial a direct-to-consumer candy subscription program for customers in the European Union.

Define your project’s scope

It’s important to have a sense of how far you want to take the modeling process. Think of your content model as a map that you can use to navigate a landscape; containing only the information you need and nothing more.

If you can, create a high-level statement related to:

  • The problems you need to solve for your organisation
  • Any ideas you might have to improve things for your audience
  • The time you’re willing to spend on modeling and implementation. (If you're thinking about skipping the modeling part, we think you should reconsider).


There are established methodologies you can follow to tie organizational goals to content design. We recommend looking into The Core Model as a way to tie strategic goals to user tasks. This doesn’t address content modelling per se, but it’s a useful way to start thinking about the content you’ll need to connect user tasks to strategic goals. We’ll return to the Core Model later in this chapter.


CandiCorp project scope:

Must have:

  • Candy subscription program for EU residents
  • Faster, more frequent catalog production
  • Searchable online product catalog
  • Informative articles in more places
  • Manage organization and marketing content from one location

Nice to have:

  • A dynamic online staff directory
  • The ability to generate an organizational chart from staff records

Audience improvements:

  • Bring products and content direct to the consumer
  • Provide valuable content across all surfaces
  • Things are easier to find online

Resource allocation:

  • A small working group to undertake the modeling process with representation from key departments.
  • 3-day modeling sprint
  • 1 day for feedback and iteration
  • 1 day to modeling a prototype in

Get your team & tools together

Gather up a working group of contributors. You’ll represent the varied needs of your organization and audience, and implement the new model in code. The amount of people in your group depends on the size of your project. While it’s important to canvas all the ideas and expertise that could inform your aspirations, don’t make your group so large that you can’t get traction on your tasks.


To get the most out of your team’s time, set up a great environment for working together. Agree to put away distractions such as laptops and cell-phones. If you’re conducting it remotely, mute all outside communication applications. Remember to take breaks, stay hydrated, and keep blood sugars at a healthy level.

For more advice on how to make for great group sessions, check out the Design Sprint book by Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky.


Our crafty confectioners assemble a squad of contributors from across the organization. While they’re a big company, they decided to keep the working group small, yet representative of all the main stakeholders:

  • Head of marketing
  • Developer
  • Content designer
  • User researcher (external consultant)

With occasional representation from the executive level.

Make sense of what you have

It’s time to make a high-level map of the ideas and materials that are available. We need to uncover a collective mental model in order to reason about content in effective ways and have it deliver on the needs of those who author and consume it.

Parts of this process are sometimes called “sense-making”, or “domain discovery”. Here’s how it works:

  1. Agree on words
  2. Identify where business and user needs cross over
  3. Establish reasonable domain boundaries
  4. Document what you know

Exactly how you go about this process is up to you. The following factors may influence how you tackle it:

  • Whether or not your team is co-located
  • How tech-focused your members are
  • Whether or not you want to actually use technology to facilitate things

Processes like card sorting, software like Miro, and spreadsheets can be helpful for what’s to come, but you don’t have to use anyone thing in particular. The main idea is to work in a collaborative manner and document processes and outcomes in a medium that’s easy to work with. Whiteboards, paper forms, and sticky notes work just fine!

Agree on the words you use

Words mean different things to different people in different situations. And it’s important to ensure that you’re all talking about the same thing when you use a certain term. If your team comes from different perspectives within the organization (which we hope they do!) it may take a minute to find common ground.

Record the important terms in a document, or if that’s more than you need – simply encourage an environment where everyone can speak up if confused. Finding common ground early is important for what comes later.


The field of ethnography has developed a few interesting methods for uncovering the domain terms used by social groups.

One of these is called Freelisting, where you attempt to uncover all the examples of a ‘thing’ that people in a domain or social group operate with. Once you have all the terms you can figure out which ones carry the most weight based on their frequency and distribution. It’s an effective way to parse a large amount of data in a few minutes without the need for special tools or expert facilitators.

Agree on the words your audience uses

Any broken promise, large or small, chips away at trust and credibility. The words in a link label make a strong suggestion about the page that is being linked to. The destination page should fulfill what the anchor text promises.

Kara Pernice – Nielsen Norman Group

You can provide a lot of value to your audience by simply using the terms and labels they already know and use. They can be used in your content model and can serve double duty for audience-facing navigation, taxonomies, and taxonomy terms.


Lost in translation: the cost of not agreeing on terms

In 1998, NASA launched the Mars Climate Orbiter into space. This 638-kilogram robotic space probe set out to study the climate and atmosphere on Mars. 10 months later it burned and broke into pieces in the red planet’s atmosphere (source).

Investigations into the crash revealed that of the two main teams working on the project – one used imperial units of measure, while the used metric. The result was a spacecraft that became literally lost-in-translation. Avoid these hiccups by agreeing on terms early.

Identify where business and user needs meet

All content fulfills a business or user need of some kind. But the best value exchange lies in content that provides for both.

If you make content that focuses solely on the business, your user may not find any value in it, and it could perform poorly. On the contrary, a business that produces content solely for user interest may not see a sustainable return on their content investment. The trick is to provide structured content opportunities that allow for a fluid exchange of value between those who provide the content, and those who consume it.


The Core Model: a handy technique for bridging business and user needs

In 2007 information architect Are Halland presented his design framework for findability, prioritization, and value that he called the Core Model.

Its premise is to build web pages and other digital products from the inside (core) out by working from the needs of business and user on each surface.

"The core model is first and foremost a thinking tool. It helps the content strategist identify the most important pages on the site. It helps the UX designer identify which modules she needs on a page. It helps the graphic designer know which are the most important elements to emphasize in the design. It helps include clients or stakeholders who are less web-savvy in your project strategy. It helps the copywriters and editors leave silo thinking behind and create better content. the end of the workshop, the group will have a common understanding of user needs, business goals, and how different pages should be connected."

– Ida Aalen


Establish reasonable domain boundaries

This is a little bit like defining scope but applied to your subject domain.

Everything we do is in relationship to something else: be it chemical, ecological, cultural, or otherwise. Content modeling can be a bit like mapping the world: one thing relates to another, and another, ad infinitum. To avoid ending up like Pepe Silvia, establish some reasonable boundaries for your domain.

Connecting ALL the dots....the Pepe Silvia scene from ‘It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia’

For example, a boutique candy maker may exist in the same domain as CandiCorp, but they probably don’t need to do as many things with their content. Find the sweet spot (pun intended) where your model captures the relationships that are most important to your needs and ignores (at least for now) the edges of your domain where immediate value is not obvious.

Document your discoveries

By this stage of the process, you should have a pretty good mental model of what the most important content types are and how they relate to one another. If you’ve been card sorting you may have groups of things that belong in a particular content type or category. Perhaps you diagrammed your way through the process, or have spreadsheets and pages too.

Now’s a good time to gather up what you know to form an indication of your main content types and the attributes you need to relate them to one another. This doesn’t have to be exhaustive and time-consuming, because you’ll be adding plenty of detail in the not too distant future.


Remember to get feedback

Reach out for feedback before you start implementing your model in code. This can be especially helpful if your working group is small and the scope is large. Input from others can reveal important perspectives, and at this stage it’s still pretty cheap to change things around.


The working group's round of sense-making and discovery emerged with consensus in the following areas:


  • Subscribers should choose their own plan.
  • Payments should be set and forget.
  • Subscriptions will change with each issue.
  • Each subscription issue needs new combinations of products to make the subscriber experience fun and interesting.


  • Products need to be categorized in more meaningful ways.
  • Products and product groups should surface in more places.


  • Catalogs should include articles.
  • Articles should appear in a feed on the website.
  • An evergreen catalog should be searchable on the website.


  • Staff needs a single place to capture contact details, roles, and departments.
  • A living staff directory should be made from staff data.
  • Staff who write articles should get accreditation.

The need for an incremental approach:

CandiCorp decided to adopt Sanity in an incremental way, taking full advantage of its "headless" API-based capabilities.

They already have a Product Information Management (PIM) system they can connect to Sanity over APIs. Sanity can augment that PIM data with new fields where necessary.

Sanity will connect to a 3rd-party SaaS solution to manage subscriber details and recurring payments. This will let them test their idea in a scalable way without investing too much effort.

If the new subscription program is a success, more product and subscriber data can be moved into Sanity for ease of management at a later time.

What we learned

We worked through ways to make sense of our content and ambitions and relate them to the task at hand. We also considered our audience’s point of view and adjusted our thinking to fulfill their needs. Finally, we reached a consensus on the essentials we need to build out fields and relationships.

Next up we’ll lay out the foundations in Sanity Studio and begin the process of connecting everything to deliver the value and meaning we’re after.

Related contributions

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Go to What is content modeling?

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