Why Saving Content for Last is Bad for Users

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Adam Green
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Planning to plug in some content after your new web design is finished? You might want to rethink that approach.

While “design first, content last” remains the standard order of operations for many a web project, it’s a strategy that can drastically reduce the effectiveness of the website in which you’re investing.Why? Because designing a website before thinking about content is like picking out a package before knowing what’s going inside it. Ultimately, you’re stuck with one of the following options:priorities

  1. Picking out a completely new package: You realize there’s a disconnect between the content users need and the design you just paid for, so you unload additional time and expense into modifications.
  2. “Squeezing” content into the wrong-sized package: This is where you replace lorem ipsum with some English words you think will do the trick.

Many people pick Number 2 as the most sensible, low-cost option. However, in the long run, it’s the absolute worst choice for users – and what’s bad for your users is really bad for your business.

“Design first” puts users last.

Content must be a priority. To understand how saving content for last negatively impacts users, imagine you and a friend just arrived at dinner party.

Your hosts’ home is clean, tidy, and free from clutter. Fine china adorns each place setting. They even folded the napkins into nice little shapes. And dimmed the lighting.

Everything looks beautiful, but…

Nobody is happy with the food: a main of chicken and rice with chocolate cake for dessert. How could a meal so simple be so disappointing? Because out of five guests at the party, you and your friend are on low-carb diets (no potatoes or cake), two others are vegetarians (no chicken), and one is a vegan (no chicken, no cake).

Your hosts, it seems, planned a dinner party that emphasized atmosphere at the expense of substance. In so doing, they completely neglected the needs of guests.

Unfortunately, a similar scenario unfolds when you try to “squeeze” new content into a set of design parameters. With aesthetics a closed case, the content you ultimately publish will be subject to any limitations the design imposes, which makes it harder to publish the right content for your users

It’s like the dinner party, only worse. The party hosts can just apologize and take everybody out to a restaurant. But you? You’re stuck with chicken, rice, and chocolate cake (i.e. sub-par content) no matter what.

Your users will all go home hungry. And they probably won’t come back.

The solution? Make content a priority.

Now we know why “design first” is bad for users, but how can you make content play a more prominent role in your web project? Here some steps you should take before the creative team starts slinging mockups around:

  1. Understand the basics of content strategy. As a field in its infancy, there’s still some debate about what content strategy entails. That said, almost everyone agrees on the basics – namely, that the creation and publication of all content should occur according to a deliberate, brand-appropriate plan designed to serve users.
  2. Ask service providers how they approach content. Whether you’re looking for an agency, a small group, or a freelancer, choose a service provider with a “content first” orientation. Run away from anyone who offers the “opportunity” to address content after the design is ready. Strong grounding in content strategy is also a plus.
  3. Be open to different approaches. No two creative teams are the same, and they all follow a unique process. “Content first” doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone, but as long as it means something to the groups you’re considering, you should take that as a good sign.

Remember, you’re a publisher. Magazines don’t choose cover designs before knowing which articles they’re going to print, and you shouldn’t design your site before planning for its content.

As Bob Dylan advises, “know [your] song well before [you] start singing.” It’s a simple idea, but also a good lesson for organizations trying to get a handle on content and create exemplary experiences for users.

Adam Green writes copy, tells stories, and practices content strategy at Green Ink Creative. He’s freelance, although his clients rarely are. Send him love notes, hate mail, or attaboys over on Twitter.

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Adam Green

Adam Green

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Comments (2)
  • Ideally, the two should happen simultaneously, shouldn’t they? Whether it’s web or print, I’ve found that when content and design are planned hand-in-hand, the results are better. The worst scenario, as you point out, is putting design first without regard to content. I’ve been there, needing to actually ADD words to meet design specs, which is ridiculous. But doing the content without regard to design can present its own problems, too.

  • RobBiesenbach Thanks for the comment, Rob. You’re right that a more or less simultaneous approach to design and content creation can be the best way to achieve the results you (and your client!) are after. I’ve worked alongside design teams in this way, and it’s a usually a fantastic approach. My point isn’t that all content creation needs to occur before designers get to work but that crafting a content strategy accounting for everything from editorial guidelines and style guides to content governance (all according to what the client needs, of course) SHOULD be defined beforehand. Design is part of that strategy, not independent from it, and should complement content such that the client is able to meet business objectives.
    As Jonas Downey asserted in http://37signals.com/svn/posts/3633-on-writing-interfaces-well, “Writing is the meat of design.” Ultimately, design should help brands convey the appropriate message – not impose limitations on the message itself.

 
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