When Will Content Be First?

2018 will be a year where content has a seat at the table from the beginning. It is the beginning of the end of content being an afterthought.
UX in 2018: Content

Oh, I hope Amy Grace Wells is right! If I have anything to say about it, we'll at least move in that direction on more projects, in more organizations, and in more design teams. It's one of the outcomes Mike Atherton and I had in mind when we wrote Designing Connected Content.

But I fear this is an uphill battle only some of us are fighting. At the end of 2017 and in the first weeks of 2018 as "2018 design trends" posts and articles appeared, I saw very little evidence that web design had any relationship to content. The closest I saw was "Evolution of AI." And the folks at CreativeBloq skirted around the issue of content by talking about "conversational interfaces." What the heck are conversational interfaces if not content? You can make them look nice, but from what I've seen, they are still crap. I still can't get a damn answer from any of the chatbots I've used - or even from the customer service chats with actual humans behind them. So I pick up the phone first more and more often. It's faster and more pleasant.

At this time last year, I shared my wishlist for 2017. In that post, I listed five things I hoped would happen:

  1. Content-first design
  2. No more carousels
  3. Strategic investments in websites
  4. More structured content
  5. Better RFPs

We made some progress, but I have the same wishes this year. My biggest wish is that people on digital design teams push for content before anything else.

I recently spent a day with a bunch UX professionals at UX Camp DC. As is typical over the years, I was the token content strategist willing to talk about content. Over and over, designers and developers agreed that they would love to have content to design with or to know what they needed to code for. Yet not one of them worked on a team that gave that to them.

Content is hard, content strategy is easier

In my latest talk about content-first design, I posit that content is hard, it only looks easy. And so it gets pushed off until the end, when you're late and over budget and just want to get the damn site or product launched.

Here's my antidote to putting content off until the end: Don't start your design or development without it. Insist that you have at the very least real, sample content. Or proto-content, as Rob Mills calls it and explains many ways to get it. In other words, do content strategy, which makes it easier to get people to do content.

Insist on content first

If you are a content strategist, insist that you do strategy, not just writing. There are many flavors of content strategy, but every one of them involves something other than writing. Effective copy is an outcome of strategy, not the strategy itself.

If you are a digital designer or developer, insist that you have a plan for content before you put a single pixel on the screen or a write line of code. That is the only way we'll get there. Content strategists can't fight this fight alone.

If you are a web or product manager who is hiring an agency, insist that you start the design phase with content, not a mock-up of the home page or a wireframe. Ask them if they will guide you through your content production process. If their content strategists will work with the designers and developers throughout the project or if they will hand off a content strategy and site map to them. (The correct answer is the former.)

You need courage to speak up, to educate the people you work with, to learn how to translate what you can do into terms the business understands. Don't assume that because an organization a content strategist that they know what to do with one. As Kathy Wagner says, we have a "false sense of industry maturity." Also, you're never going to sell content strategy.

Have patience. Practice. Find your own brand of strategic nagging. Together we can make great leaps in 2018 so that the list of design trends for 2019 will include "starting design with the content that the interface delivers."