Content Design Content First Content Strategy

Does content first matter?

Content First is the practice of designing a product or service with content being a primary concern ahead of things like the functionality a website offers.

Typically, designers may mock up designs and include placeholders for product text. They may even take a stab at writing their own content to fill these spaces.

An example of this might be when designing a travel website. If consideration hasn’t been given to the content we want to display on the first page, we might end up with an unsuitable layout. If boxes are saved for content using lorem ipsem text, the wrong amount of space might be allocated for the actual content that will end up there, resulting in awkward spaces.

Interest is increasing

I first heard the phrase two years ago when our new Experience Design director joined the company. Content First was how we were going to design going forward. Only, no indication was given as to how this was going to change things.

I’ve most recently heard UX Design colleagues returning from general UX conferences explaining that Content First is what attendees are talking about. It has become a buzzword in design circles.

My initial reaction to hearing about Content First, despite not fully understanding what it meant, was that us content folk were going to get listened to. No longer were we going to be thrown the designs just before hitting the development team. Instead, we were going to become an intrinsic part of the process; our involvement perhaps even more valuable than the UI Designers.

What are the common problems in designing without content first?

These are some common issues where content isn’t considered in the initial stages of design:

  • If we accept that content is a fundamental part of the customer experience, then throwing dummy content into a design and presenting that to a customer is going to result in questionable feedback. How can they give us feedback on a design where a fundamental part is missing?
  • Content can unify different parts of the experience. Where large design teams are creating a single experience the tone and messaging can become inconsistent leading to customer confusion.
  • Bringing a content team in late, can unnecessarily constrain their ability to shape the experience resulting in content being used to fudge through the experience rather than be the thread that pulls customers along.

How can Content First improve the situation?

Beyond obviating the problems outlined above, there are some other ways Content First can improve the design process.

  • By thinking more like content strategists, UX Designers can design without surprises. If they know in advance how many pieces of information their navigation designs will need to handle, they will design accordingly. If the titles of each page are going to be a certain length, they should be prepared and provide enough room.
  • Content teams can feed terminology preferences into the designs. As part of our work, we’re researching with customers and taking a wider view across products to make sure we’re presenting the appropriate words to customers.
  • By thinking of the wider customer journey, including key marketing and business goals, content designers can ensure products are designed with the appropriate messaging built in from the start.
  • By paying as much attention to the words on the screen as to the buttons to press, designers are becoming more aware of the emotional impact their designs are having on customers. If we can teach them why we’re using humour or not in a given scenario, we are helping to bring the customer back to the centre of the design process.

What are we doing at Sage?

Two months ago, a meeting was called to discuss how to implement a content first approach to our design process. It was the first time since our Experience Design director had mentioned Content First that the rest of the Experience Design team were ready to make changes.

I spent a lot of time researching Content First. There are different opinions on the importance of the approach and I needed to see where my views lay. As ever, it’s complicated.

I quickly realised that in none of the examples in Content First articles I could find, was anyone talking about complex web applications like we were building at Sage, where tables, charts, and dialogs were important.

I suggested that actually, what we needed wasn’t a Content First approach. It was a collaborative approach where content was included from the get go and where content concerns were raised as soon as possible. The UX Designers had enough constraints from the solution designers and as long as we were understanding workflow and seeing designs as soon as possible, we could shape content appropriately.

It didn’t stop us owning the terminology part of the design, or working with user research to ensure we were truly understanding the customer.

Finding balance

Whatever you want to call it in your organisation, it’s more important than ever that content is considered as early as possible. That might mean you need to find a way to work more closely with the design team.

At Sage, we’ve discovered that a close collaboration between UX Design and Content Design is the sweet spot for us. It needn’t be a tug of war between content and design. Better results can be had by remembering we’re on the same side.

3 things this week

3 things this week

Image of fidget spinner with post title
  1. So glad it’s Friday. Worked last week but at home, and only had to go into the office on Wednesday and Friday, but long commutes home on both of those days has knocked me back. Much sooner do a 3 hour run than sit in the car for 2 hours.
  2. It seems that content design is very much in demand at Sage. Our expertise is getting noticed (no doubt thanks to our fab team manager) and we’re getting asked to work on projects outside our scope. It would be good if the boss could just expand the team but for now it seems that we’re going to stay as we are and knock back any work that doesn’t fall into our explicit remit. This seems the sensible thing to do as we’re going to focus on depth rather than breadth.
  3. Had a good meeting about first time use and how we expose customers to new features. Within the team, we’ve already recognised that our release notes need a revamp both in terms of presentation and how we push them to customers. The designs I saw today look great. Very visual and engaging. I’ve promised to work closely with our UX designer on the wider aspect of promoting new features within the product as the customer stumbles across them, probably using tools already at our disposal like Pendo.
Personal Update

What next with the blog?

I’ve been mulling over what to use this platform for this last few days and then I started reading through some of the very old posts that I wrote as a technical author first starting out in different sprint teams.

And it was interesting.

Perhaps not interesting to other visitors, but for me, it was a reminder of how far we’ve come at Sage with technical writing.

My biggest concern has been—and this goes against a core principle of content design—not knowing who my audience is for this blog. Should I be trying to explain content design to readers or share my experiences in the job?

The older posts and the title of the blog itself has given me a gentle nudge. I’m finding benefit in sharing my experiences as they are. I’m not going to worry about whether the content is going to be educational in a formal sense. Instead, I’ll share experiences and let readers take what they will from it.

And if I ever get that book written, I’ll have a decent selection of content to choose from to include.