Content-First for a Better User Experience

The following is a partial transcript from the webinar, How to Put Content First in the Design Process.

Something is broken in the UX world, which is where so much of our content lives.

We’ve got people all over the place unhappy with their current process.

  • Designers pushing work out the door to meet a deadline or show progress
  • Content people being asked to fill in the words at the last minute
  • Project managers pushing everyone to get their things done because we’re behind schedule and over-budget--again

This is a generalization, of course. But if you’re on this webinar today, you’re frustrated by something. Something isn’t working right for your team or organization.

I’ve got good news. We can solve this problem. But only by working together. Just like those people at NASA did to get the Apollo 13 crew home after things went horribly wrong.

I don’t mean staying out of the way of others while they do their work.

I don’t mean cooperation - working toward the same end.

I mean true COLLABORATION. When people work together jointly to balance the idealism of a perfect experience and pragmatism of resource constraints.

I believe cross-functional teams that understand and respect each other’s expertise create the best products and experiences. In these teams, there are no hand-offs. There are a lot of questions. Because everyone knows how they fit into the process and who they need to talk to when something is needed to get their bit done. A two-minute exchange could save hours of rework later.

I have lived this dream. Over 10 years ago, while working at a small agency, the technology director, creative director, and I created a process that allowed each of our expertise to overlap. The websites we built were never waiting for content and very little had to be rebuilt. We all felt responsible for the experience and worked together to create good ones--for our clients, their audiences, and our team.

This dream also come true when I managed a web team for an engineering society. I had inherited a group of seven people who were initially a rag-tag team of do-it-yourself-ers who learned how to work together to implement a content-first process. After about a year or year and a half, I was so happy to see one of the developers walk over to the content strategist’s desk. They finally got it!

Here’s the shameless plug for my book, Designing Connected Content, which I wrote with Mike Atherton. It provides a framework for a process that puts content ahead of the visuals in the design process and explains a lot more than I can cover here. It’s all in there. Mike and I wrote it for you. Go buy it!

What does "content first' mean?

So content first. What does that mean anyway?

Content design is an approach that involves the use of content to define the layout and elements in an [interface].
--Graeme Fulton

Web designer, conference organizer, and publisher extraordinaire Jeffrey Zeldman told us 11 years ago that content precedes design. And without content, it’s merely decoration.

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

Benefits of Content-First Design

Why would we do content-first? Some of the top benefits of content-first design are:

  • Content works harder so people don’t have to
  • Content is more findable
  • Organizations are ready for new technology
  • Less frequent redesigns
  • Increased return on investment
  • Stakeholder alignment
  • Greater internal efficiency
  • Audience gets what they need
  • Faster path to updates and upgrades
  • Everyone gets aligned around the user, not opinions about the website

Let’s take a moment to talk about stakeholder alignment.

In this process you work with stakeholders early and often. At the beginning, you’ve ask them what matters most to them and their audiences. They’ve given you information only they can--knowledge about their work, their goals, and how they interact with their audience. Their input doesn’t depend on any knowledge of web design or development. Everyone is happy.

How does a content-first process work?

You do a lot of work upfront: define parameters, scope, actively engage with the stakeholders, and do some user research.

Everyone involved from the start. Think of it as an ALL PLAY game.

Conversations start during the early phases. So that when it’s time to design and build, everything can happen in parallel. Everyone knows what content the interface design and CMS needs to support.

A content first process starts with a content model, defining the structure of the content resources, and then content creation, UX & UI design, and development working in parallel.

A content first process starts with a content model, defining the structure of the content resources, and then content creation, UX & UI design, and development working in parallel.

Each person can confidently do their work, knowing exactly what they’re supposed to do--or who to ask if a question or issue comes up.

Note that this does not mean that you need to hold up the process and create all the content before doing anything. It means you create the structure of the content. Plan the content first. Make the structure usable. And make it easy to manage.

The People Part

That was a really fast run through of a process that takes months to complete. Of course there are a lot of details and other inputs that make this possible. But I hope you now can see how it is possible to go content-first, design-last. How to make content connected behind the scenes with simplicity up front and complexity in the back.

The people part of this is the most difficult part. You need to change your design team’s mindset. You have to change your clients’ or stakeholders’ way of thinking about web design. You have to navigate to your organizational culture that might not be used to facilitation and collaboration. But start somewhere or you will go nowhere.

Best of all, you do not necessarily add time or budget to a project! Yes, that’s right! You merely shift time and resources to the start of the project to create affinity around the user, make sure everyone gets involved right away, and make the creation go much smoother.

You can take the time and money away from development because the developers know exactly what they are building so there is less guess work, which means less rework. There are fewer visual design revisions because you’ve already made the decisions about why and what to create. And you don’t have the risk of content not fitting the design or CMS structure--or not having the content ready for two years.

Find what will work for your team. Do not attempt to do this all at once for every project you have going. This isn’t a switch you’ll flip. Some ways to get started:

  • Pilot project - one that is small and that you have control over
  • New project - starting from scratch rather than redesigning? Perfect time to try a new process because there is no junk to clean up
  • Client or project with a flexible scope, time, budget, and open mind

My advice to each of you:

  • Stay a team
  • Practice strategic nagging – patient but persistent repetition of a message
  • Make accommodations – do not fall prey to dogma
  • Have empathy – for yourself, for your teammates, for your clients or stakeholders

They do not know what they don’t know. They know things you don’t know. You know things they don’t know. Work on ways to create a symbiotic relationship.

I hear a lot of people say that they can’t do something because they aren’t allowed to. Or that a particular visual design or the site menu or copy is the way it is because that’s what someone told them what to do. And to that, I say: Change how you approach the people who you need to do your best work. Don’t complain about how no one understands the wireframes and, therefore, poor decisions were made because of it. Figure out how to communicate with people who are not web experts. Put your dogma and tools away. That’s the hard part.

“It’s not okay to whine, if you are the person who wasn’t willing to do the hard part.”
--Seth Godin

You have personal agency to do things differently. To steer others toward a new way. Don’t be a know-it-all or bully, but show up and be seen and heard. You can ask questions. You can pushback. You can choose which battles to fight. You are the expert. This isn’t a "religious debate," as Steve Krug calls endless discussions in which people express strongly held beliefs.

You are responsible for the experiences your users have. Don’t make them feel dumb. Make them feel capable.

If content isn’t a primary ingredient in your process, you have a problem that cannot wait to be fixed. It is costing money, lives, times, and sanity.

What will you do?

This is a people problem. We have all the tools we need. Too many, in fact. Go back to pencil and paper. Sticky notes and whiteboards.

Don’t wait for the perfect time or the perfect project. They won’t happen. Figure out what you can do tomorrow--or today--to start the shift to a content-first process.

Don’t wait to be asked. No one is going to ask you to do this. Make it happen.

When you do, everyone is happy.

  • Your team
  • Your stakeholders or clients
  • Your users
  • Even the robots who are taking over

Thank you for showing up today.

Watch the whole webinar here: How to Put Content First in the Design Process.