Adopting Content First UX Design

content first ux
If you’ve been in web design for any length of time, you’ve probably chased your fair share of content. In fact, it’s probably delayed your projects more than once. It might even be delaying them now.

Getting timely delivery of website content is by far the messiest, most difficult aspect of web design. At the same time, creating and developing quality website content is perhaps the most important aspect of delivering a successful user experience.

In this post I’ll share how I’m helping a client implement a content first UX approach and lessons learned along the way.

Start With A Conversation

I first heard about Content-First UX Design in 2014 at the UI19 conference in Boston, MA. UX designer Steph Hay gave a fascinating and inspiring presentation about initiating content-first UX by starting a simple conversation with stakeholders.

We want our users to go from point A to point B without any friction. We also want to make sure the message sent is the right message. That means the design needs to feel like a conversation from the very beginning, regardless of the device we design for.

Capture Everything In A Text File

A really useful way to start documenting this conversation is by using a simple text document. It’s a great way to sketch out the big picture so you can fill in the details over time, because it’s going to take some time to fully understand everything in context.

The humble text file also helps teams focus solely on content from the outset. There are no design decisions to make or fancy-pants software to worry about at this stage. Wireframes can come later. Much later after you’ve done appropriate user research. But that’s only part of the story.

Setting Up A Content First UX Project

Earlier this year I attended a 4-hour virtual masterclass hosted by London-based GatherContent. The event was led by Liam King, who introduced his full-service agency approach to selling and managing content strategy projects.

The materials provided at the end of the workshop were fantastic, and gave me a proven framework to add content strategy to my own service offerings. I also learned a lot from Kristina Halvorson’s landmark book Content Strategy For The Web.

An Elephant Meets Opportunity

It was obvious that all of these resources could immediately help one of my clients with their existing content challenges. At the time we were in the process of wrapping up Discovery for a new website redesign.

As we pored over extensive user research, business needs and competitive information, my clients realized there was a big elephant in the room. Since everyone already had full time jobs, there was no one available to manage the growing list of content requirements for the new website.

Instead there was a big wall full of content-related sticky notes with no owners assigned to them. Lonely, unaccounted-for sticky notes. Not good.

Enter The Content Planning Workshop

I offered to conduct a separate, content-only discovery workshop to help them make a plan and assign resources. They agreed, and at the end of that workshop they asked me to propose a full content strategy and execution plan. A few weeks later a new project was born.

The project literally sold itself since it solved an obvious pain point for my client. An added bonus is that we were able to kick off the content project at the same time that the new site’s wireframes were approved. What initially started off as a simple text document was slowly becoming a much more concrete, well-informed design.

The Content Audit Is Your Friend

When it comes to content, the first step is understanding what you have to work with, if anything, and where any gaps are. I’ve written about the value of conducting content audits before. They really are worth every bit of time and effort.

Quantitative and qualitative content audits are the secret sauce to creating an effective content strategy. They give you a solid starting point and help you figure out what to keep, what to delete, and identify what, if anything new you need to create.

Who, What, Where, When, Why and How

Then there’s my six favorite questions from from journalism school. These are equally important to answer when developing a content strategy:

Who: Who owns the content? Who are the subject matter experts? Who will be responsible for managing the overall project? Who will manage the day-to-day aspects? Who will edit the existing content? Who will create and deliver the final content? Who will approve everything? Who else needs to be involved? What can we do right now?

What: What are the key messages? What specifically do we expect to accomplish with this project? What content needs to be updated? What content can remain as is? What kind of content is it, audio, video, images, or text? What software should we use? What are the risks? What do we need to avoid?

Where: Where is the content? Is it easy to access?

When: When can we get started? When do we need to update it? When do we need to finish this project?

Why: Why are we doing this?

How: How long is this going to take? How are we going to approach it? How do we prioritize the content? How do we organize it? How can we tell what’s new stuff vs. old stuff? How will this project impact the other things we’re working on?

Bye Bye Lorem Ipsum

Cross pollination between design and content development is absolutely critical. Content strategists, writers and designers need to be in sync as the project progresses.

We recently had a team meeting to review preliminary designs for the home page. It was exciting to see the wireframes come to life in the proposed designs with real content. And this result was intentional.

During our content discovery sessions we made a conscious decision to move away from Lorem Ipsum and have at least draft versions of real content in all the appropriate places. This “proto-content” makes a huge difference in visualizing the final design.

Because it is very similar in word count and scope to the final content, hopefully it will reduce or even eliminate surprises down the road.

Set Up Systems For Content Development

In the old days I used to manage content in a giant copy deck created in Microsoft Word. It was great as long as no significant changes were made. But as we all know, content is messy and everyone puts their hands in it. As nice as they are, Word documents just can’t handle the demands of today’s dynamic websites.

Alternatively, GatherContent is a great online tool to collect all the disparate pieces of an existing website and organize them within a new design. It’s also been very helpful as we prioritize and develop new content.

I like that I’m able to organize the site’s content in one centralized location. The interface presents everything in a simple outline form. This makes it fairly easy to organize page templates according to a pre-defined sitemap.

We’ve also been able to streamline the content production process with custom workflows. Besides text, we can match up hi-res images and videos within the GatherContent environment. Once it’s approved we’ll export it directly to preliminary HTML and CSS templates.

But one drawback of GatherContent is the simple outline format referenced above. While it helps with page templates, it makes it a bit challenging to define specific content for re-usable components such as product dropdown boxes or other complex functionality.

For now we’ve found a workaround using the existing structure, but it’s something I hope the company can improve upon in the future.

Paving The Way For Smooth Development

The whole point of all this is to set the stage for a relatively smooth development process. We should have most, if not all of the website building blocks in place by the time our developers are ready to start coding. There should be no last-minute scrambling or scratching of heads wondering where the XYZ landing page assets went.

It’s also fun. Yeah, you heard me. This way of working with content is challenging and fun. It’s like a giant Rubik’s Cube.

It’s fun when teams feel good about a project. It’s fun when clients know what to expect. Sure, there’s also a lot of grunt work involved, but that’s true of anything worth doing. So far so good. I’m excited to see the final product go live.

Over To You

What’s your experience with Content Strategy? Has it helped your overall design and development process? What would you do differently? Please leave your thoughts in the comments. As always, thanks for reading!

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