May 8th, 2012

Designing for Content: Have a Content Strategy First

The intersection of design, development and SEO is content

It seems ironic to me that one of the most challenging parts of creating a website is getting written content in an effective format. But it is a bafflingly common occurrence that potential clients will want a new website without a solid notion of what its contents will be.

Without good content, visual style and design are almost useless. As a visual designer, it might seem surprising that I would relegate my own skill set to second tier, but the most important part of building a website is having a solid foundation of effective content. This might seem obvious, but sometimes it is so obvious that its importance is overlooked. Often a somewhat backwards approach is taken, where it is just assumed that content will somehow appear after completing the exhaustive design and development processes. What results is usually a lot of wordy filler, or company-related jargon that users don’t care about.

Why Content Strategy?

It is always a good idea to understand the purpose of your website’s content before design and development begins. As designers and developers we take the time to develop a project’s sitemap and navigation structure at the beginning, but it is best to take that a step further and consider the content at these early stages. At the very least, designers and clients need to have an in-depth dialogue about the purpose, audience and structure of their site, and plan a strategy for developing relevant content now and in the future. So what are the benefits of this content-minded approach?

Knowing what you are building

Designs can be drastically improved when the designer knows the format and goals of the content he is building for. Knowing a one-line bullet point from a sitemap is usually not sufficient for knowing what the actual content will be. Whether a page contains a list of content blocks, or a multi-step form, or an infographic, this will have a huge impact on how the page is designed. Without knowing this, a designer is forced to take all types of content into account. In other words: be generic and mediocre. Blah.

Revealing holes

In the early stages of planning a website, very often a client will have high hopes for what they can achieve.

“Yes” they say, “we will have exhaustive biographical information and multimedia for each of our staff members.”

As it turns out, blurry photos and sentence fragments don’t qualify as exhaustive. If we get a complete picture of the content’s form before we start building, we will know exactly what areas are lacking in depth, and can design accordingly.

Seeing through your users’ eyes

One common issue that is often revealed when the content comes in is the use of jargon and company-centered information. It is not wholly irrational for a company-man to have a certain view of how his company is organized, but this view is often in direct contrast to the way their customers see the company. A customer, for example, does not care about the management structure of your accounts-payable department. It is key to remember that a website is built to bring value to its end users, not to please the company CEO.

So is it possible to create websites that can fit a wide variety of unknown content? Yeah, sure. In the real world, clients are busy and we can’t expect them to take a three month sabbatical to work on their website. Can we create a beautifully empty website template, then fill in the blanks when the time comes? If we have to.

But the question we should be asking is whether this is the best way. By knowing as much about the content as possible before we begin, every area of the web development process is more informed, streamlined and focused. Designers get to flex their stylistic muscles and clients get the best possible product.

Everybody wins.

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