Content Before Design

Posted By Brent Arnold In UX & Design 10/17/2011

“Content precedes design. Design in the absence of content is not design, it’s decoration.”
- Jeffrey Zeldman

Practically everyone in the web industry has heard the phrase “when do we need our copy by?” at least once from their clients.  Unfortunately, it is not always an easy question to answer, largely because in reality it is part of a greater overarching conversation.  The simple truth is that visitors come to, and stay around your website for the content, not the design.  Thus the content development process is incredibly important and should be treated as such.  

Best Practices for Content Development

Given the importance of content development, where do these considerations come into the process and how should you get started?  Drawing on DOOR3’s user experience expertise, I've put together a few helpful tips to point you in the right direction.

Create “user-focused” content by thinking about who your audience is and what their needs are.

User experience designers have a variety of best practices and tools guided by the philosophy of “user-centered design”.  This philosophy involves defining who your users are and understanding their wants and needs so that great user-focused experiences can in turn be created.  By bringing content development into these user-centered practices, relevancy is greatly improved for users, resulting in positive experiences that keep them coming back.


User-focused content understands a user's wants and needs.

Make content development part of the overall conversation/strategy.

At the outset of most web projects, one of the first steps should be setting the overall strategy for a project.  Working together to determine high-level goals, tactics and success factors that all will be held accountable for aids in building mutual understanding and cohesion amongst the project’s stakeholders.

Addressing content development with tools like Messaging Hierarchy at the start of the project can greatly reduce the number of users who become lost or disinterested by confusing experiences, projects that are late due to insufficient time for content creation and designs that look empty or crowded.  Including content goal setting and messaging hierarchy in the overall strategy of the project can give direction and context for what is being created and in turn create more informed and meaningful user experiences.

Bringing content into the initial strategy discussions can help avoid designs that look empty or crowded.

Define a workflow for creating, editing, publishing and managing content.

Whether utilizing a team of one or many, creating copy can be difficult, time consuming and often times grueling.  Additionally, once that content is live on the web, good and relevant content must be consistently added to support your brand’s image and message.  However, there is help.  Creating an overall workflow that can be easily followed and repeated as well as defining contributors’ roles each step of the way will greatly improve the output.

Understand what you have as well as what you don’t.

From start-ups to 100-year-old Fortune 500 companies, there is usually some amount of existing content (business plan, current website, annual report, etc) that a company uses in its communication and marketing.  This material can be a very useful starting point for any new online project.

One of the best tools to use in assessing current resources is a content inventory or audit.  Performing at least a cursory audit can further understanding of the company’s foundation and provide a base for making sound strategic decisions.  As an added bonus, having this content on-hand can eliminate the need for Lorem Ipsum in the design process.

Work with your web designer/Information Architect.

No matter what the size, there comes a point in every online project at which the decision must be made as to which content will be used and where it will be placed.  In most projects, this series of decisions is led by an Information Architect (IA) or a Web Designer who spends time researching the project’s users to better understand what they’re looking for and ensure that they can complete any tasks they set out to do.  IAs also seek to develop an understanding of the content and determine the best way to deliver it.  To help express this graphically, IAs use a series of powerful documents such as wireframes, sitemaps and various other diagrams.

By working closely with the project’s IA and providing a clear overall strategy for content, powerful decisions can be made that will greatly improve page readability, content hierarchy, inherent brand value, search engine optimization (SEO) and general findability.

Conclusion

These tips have been compiled as a guide in starting the content development process and considering its impact on your project.  As Daniel Eizans says, “content strategy and information architecture are more than a means to achieve findability”.  In closing, it is worth reiterating that putting some serious thought into content development and integrating it into the process before design paves the way for shared goals amongst various stakeholders, more relevant content and, ultimately, the creation of superior user experiences which both users and designers will benefit from.

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