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The “Content First” Approach to Creating Your Website

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Over the years I have written a post or two about our process for planning, designing and developing a website or app. It’s always evolving as technology changes, we learn new techniques and come across fresh challenges. I find looking back at how I used to do things is a bit like looking at old photos of myself – cringe! Time highlights how experience has given us new tools, expertise and knowledge that we didn’t have before, such as the content first approach.

While the core of our process hasn’t changed dramatically, what is always changing is what’s happening inside each of the main stages. What I find is that the sequence of events is critical to the success of a web project. Each stage feeds the next and working ahead without completing a previous step can often have a negative effect on the project and the quality of the output.

Prioritise Content First

Content is the life blood of a website or app, it’s what your audience come for, whether it’s a brochure, eCommerce, data capture, information or entertainment. Content creates the design, functionality and purpose of your website or app. Form follows function and the function is usually based on the content.

It’s not uncommon for us to be asked by some clients to begin the UX and design process before the content is ready, a requirement usually created by project time constraints. The problem with this is that we are creating the information architecture, wireframes and design by guessing what the content might be and how much of it there is. Using “lorem ipsum” as placeholder text and through wireframes and dummy images in design is no substitute for actual content. In fact its not uncommon to still see placeholder text go unchecked on a live website. It’s a mistake to create content to fit a design. You make a shoe that fits the foot, not find a foot that fits the shoe.

From experience the design first approach will usually result in multiple design changes being required after the website or app has been built. This is a counter productive way of working and can effect the project timings and the budget. We also find that if the design is not tailored to suit the content it can often end up looking less bespoke, more generic and not fit for purpose.

Why Content First?

When we use a content first process we are taking the content centre stage, this ensures we consider the opportunities, constraints and implications of content on our designs. We can think about how to display the actual content so it’s easy to digest, especially on mobile. The content will inform and drive the design and that’s when good UX design takes the delivery and communication of content to the next level of experience.

Content creators should be closely involved in the planning stages of any project and they should work closely with the UX designers, project managers and developers. It’s key that everyone understands what is expected and what the common vision is.

Jamie’s Story

Jamie, one of our UX designers here in the studio told me a story about a client he was working with when he was in a previous company, the client had a new product they wanted to launch online and he asked Jamie to work with him on creating a promotional landing page for the product. Their initial conversation went something like this.

Client:
“I need a design for a web page that explains how our new subscription product works, I want to put it live next week.”

Jamie:
“No problem, can we get together and look at your content. I can sketch a wireframe and then I’ll come up with a first draft of the design.”

Client:
“I don’t have any content yet, I was hoping you could design something that I could look at before I work on the content.”

Jamie:
“But if I don’t know what the content and functionality is, how can I create a design for it?”

I have heard people suggest that the choice between content or design first is an eternal question, like “which came first, the chicken or the egg”? This simply isn’t the case, it’s always content first, there is no debate.

Best Practice

Copy should be written with an idea of how it will be displayed on-screen. It should be written with many questions in mind — should there be a more concise version of the content for mobile devices? Does it need accompanying graphics or icons to get the point across? How will a piece of content work with the other content on the rest of the page? When it comes to images, if we are supplied images after the site has been designed are they going to work and fit into our layout and will they work across responsive screens?

All this detail needs to be worked out through close collaboration between the UX designers and the content creators and the final wireframes should always feature content that is as close to approved as possible in order for a final design to begin in earnest.

Timings can be a challenge for any project, it may sound like a good idea to work on content and design in parallel and in isolation to save time but from experience the opposite is true, it’s simply counter-productive. Using actual content (both text and images) throughout the design process will inform and guide design decisions and result in designs that scale well and communicate effectively as the content intends. Everybody wants the best possible output.

What is your process? How do you handle content creation in the mix of UX, design and development? Let us know in the comments below.

  • Conor Doyle

    The conversation between Jamie and his client gives me the uncanny feeling of deja-vu. I wonder if the proliferation in the use of ready-made generic themes has given many folks a misunderstanding of how great websites are developed. I think it’s a real skill to be able to sit down and encourage a client to take a step back and return the initial focus to what it is they want to say to the audience – one I’m slowly getting better at. The questions in the Best Practice section are a very useful place to start. Content is king. Thanks for this!

    • Thanks Conor. If you strip away all the gimmicks and UX fads that are unnecessary, it brings you back to content and simplicity which in turn brings a better user experience.