Design Impact: Why Content Comes First

Content First Before Design

Why can’t you use Lorem Ipsum? We can write the copy to fit the design. We’re still working on the content, you can just add that in at the end can’t you?

These are a couple of the many statements I’ve heard when waiting for content for a website. Although, it typically never works out well in the end. I’ve learned many things over the years when stepping through the process of building a website. Everyone has different expectations, past experiences & their own preconceived notions of how the process should go. No agency, in-house team, or freelancer works exactly the same way.

Why content first?

But one thing we have all in common is that we need the content first. Content is the reason for design after-all.

Content is the purpose for a website in the first place. If there isn’t a content strategy, how can there be a successful website?

Every website should have a purpose. Maybe it’s selling fireworks or rocket ships or maybe it’s teaching your grandma how to use the internet. Whatever the purpose is, it needs content to convey it to the world.  Content isn’t necessarily just copy. It comes in many different forms and each are equally important to the website as a whole. Content could be the photos for the homepage or perhaps an illustration conveying the number of happy customers you’ve surveyed last year. Each piece of content fulfills a larger mission.

Define your mission

A mission should be clearly defined and should be the basis of creating content for a website. For example, lets say we’re creating a website for a antique collector. Their mission might be: “Antique Company X shares their passion of the long-lost memories through vintage collectables. They make it easy to browse for antiques without having to drive across country.” So… the content on the site must be geared towards this statement. Anything that doesn’t fit the mission isn’t relevant to the site and should be tossed aside.

Now you’re probably thinking…why isn’t the web designer helping with the creation of the content? Don’t they “create” websites? Isn’t the content a part of that? A web designer puts all of the pieces together, to enhance and communicate the purpose in the best possible way. They typically aren’t responsible for creating it or coming up with a strategy for you. Unless of course that is what you hired them to do as well 😊

If not the web designer, than who?

There are many different people that can and will likely be involved in putting together the content. These people include your employees, perhaps the family member who started the business originally, maybe the company photographer and you!

A copywriter is only a small piece to the puzzle. A copywriter can help define the style that the copy should be written in to fit the needs of the site’s mission. They can take the content received from non-professional writers and re-write it to fit a particular style, check it for grammar & spelling mishaps and rewrite it as necessary to be SEO friendly too! It’s always a good idea to find a copywriter to work with through the entire project’s lifespan. They can help give your content creators direction and help organize their thoughts and ideas from the beginning.

A great tool to use during the content process is a page table. Kristina Halverson, author of Content Strategy for the Web introduced the idea of a page table when she spoke recently at An Event Apart. A page table is an outline that lays out the following outline for a content on a web page:

  • Page Name
  • Objective
  • What the Source of the Content Is
  • Key Messages (how is the objective being reached through the content via one key message?)
  • Top Priorities (goals for the page elements)

It helps to eliminate unnecessary content and focus again on the mission in smaller pieces. This may be a great tool for a smaller website or a good starting point for a larger one. Give these tables to your content creators so they know what the goals of their job is. Otherwise it’ll be one more thing to put off. Especially if it isn’t in their job description.

Another way to finagle content from those who might not be in charge of it on a day-to-day basis is a calendar. Creating a calendar specific only to the web project, will help make the responsibility of content creation more pressing. Especially if more than one person on the task of bringing content together. That way they will feel the pressures of a deadline. Still having trouble gathering content? Send out the calendar or deadlines to the entire team and the project manager. So they’ll know who to send “reminders” if things aren’t getting done on time.

A page table can help guide your content creators so they can make your deadlines without feeling like they don’t know where to start.

What is a content style guide?

Similar to a designers style guide (if not a part of it), a content style guide helps define the tone and persona of the website’s content. Think about the different characteristics you want to portray. Do you want to entertain your audience? Do you want to educate them but still allow them to have fun at the same time? Pick a few to start. For example: Smart, Quirky & Fun. Our content won’t be written in a scientific language. It’ll be smart, yet easy to read & make people laugh as they read it. Give a few example of what that content might sound like and what you don’t want it to sound like. This will guide your copywriters and content owners when they create it.

What happens to the content after the website has launched?

Another key component to content strategy is finding a keeper of the content. Someone who can own it, cradle it in its’ arms and call it theirs. Content should be looked after, measured and adjusted to fit the targeted users as time goes on. Changing a single headline can have a big impact on a site’s performance. Make sure this responsibility lies with someone who doesn’t already have a pile of work to do. It shouldn’t be the last resort. The content on your website, can be compared to your employees standing and talking about your business to strangers.

I have content, but it needs a facelift.

A great tool that could help, if you haven’t done it already, is a content inventory. Kristina Halvorson writes about this in her article titled The Content Inventory is Your Friend. Organizing the content you do have before giving it a facelift can help you determine a plan of action. What content isn’t meeting your objectives? What content can be completely removed?

Even if you have a big, expensive content management system, it still may be useful for you to maintain a content inventory. Simply having all of your web content assets listed in one place can help you see important content attributes at-a-glance, like who owns what, or what still needs updating. -Kristina Halvorson

Now you can start to see how designing a website without content doesn’t make a whole lot of sense does it?

Sarah Shuda
Sarah Shuda
Designer. Mom. Wife. Loves Gilmore Girls, healthy living, and long walks in the country.