The Content Conundrum

Written by: Christopher Detzi

rocks, intro image

As web designers and information architects, we often dismiss deep consideration of content when we design interactive experiences. By content I’m not only referring to the various forms of text (e.g., headers, body copy, error messages) but also imagery, graphics, and videos or audio that make up the full interactive experience.

Sure, we have a sense of what content is available, and we’ve likely considered it to some extent when creating flows, wireframes, and prototypes. But the design artifacts that we create represent only part of the overall user experience that we’re designing. The content that sits inside of our design framework is often the final arbiter of success, yet we sometimes diminish its importance and separate ourselves from it. The more we separate our design activities from content development, the greater the risk of design failure.

Recognizing The Problem — The Content Gap

There’s often an unsettling discrepancy between the stakeholder approved wireframes and visual comps and the actual product in production. What you see in those environments is sometimes a far cry from those polished wireframes and those shiny, pixel-perfect visualizations that were filled with placeholder content (such as lorem ipsum text, dummy copy, and image blocks). What you’re seeing in production environments now holds the real content. The imagery doesn’t support the interactions, is meaningless, useless, or worse, contradictory to the design intent. The copy, headers, and labels are unclear, too long, too short, or simply irrelevant.

What happened?

More than likely, that content was discussed, created, and iterated outside or separate from the core design review process and ultimately plugged into a content management system (or pasted into the code by a developer) much later in the development process.

The example illustrated in Figure 1 shows two examples of web content. The image on the left represents a screen shot of the approved design that was delivered to the production team. The image on the right is a screen shot of that same page taken from a functional test environment after the real content was included. As you can see, the experience breaks down considerably with the amount, type, and format of the real content. The information is more difficult to scan, the primary call-to-action has been pushed well below the fold, and the choices that users need to make are less clear.

These two screens show what the content gap looks like. On the left is the mockup next to what it looked like in production.

While this example highlights only a small portion of the overall web site, the problem manifested itself throughout the bulk of pages that made up this interactive experience. So what might be perceived as a small problem becomes a much bigger problem when considered across the entire interactive experience.

Exploring the Causes

These content gaps are both procedural and cultural within organizations. By procedural, I’m referring to the tangible processes used by an organization to design and develop a web product. Often times, these ‘processes’ are influenced by the organization’s values and overall culture. There are four common reasons why content gaps occur.

Flawed Processes

There’s undoubtedly a wide spectrum of web design and development ‘processes’ in use today. Most often, however, organizations use one that aligns more closely with either a traditional waterfall process or alternatively, an Agile one. In theory, both models have mechanisms built-in to eliminate and minimize surprises (including content gaps) but in reality, both tend to exacerbate the problem but do so in different ways. Rigid waterfall processes fail because they tend to segment activities and related roles. Designers often design totally separate from content ideation and development. Agile processes fail because they’re typically developer centric and move at speeds and iterations more akin to code production than to experience design and content development. The site is often being coded before the design or content are ever completed.

Content The Design(er) is King

We’re at a point now where usability is table stakes, and persuasion and message is necessary to differentiate products.

The value of most design projects is typically placed in the upfront design and strategy work. It’s here that the ‘big ideas’ are generated and explored. During this initial phase, are the right people involved in the design process alongside of us, exploring solutions? I’d argue that we rarely involve our content partners, even though we’re essentially creating a framework for communication and messaging. It’s here that content specialists thrive. We’d benefit from including those who specialize in communication, writing, persuasion, and instruction more directly. We might argue that as designers that we have those skills, but then we shouldn’t rely so heavily on placeholder content in our designs.

There’s a lot we can learn from traditional advertising here. In advertising, copywriters often drive the creative process. Their skills with communications and persuasive messaging are often unparalleled within an agency. We’re at a point now where usability is table stakes, and persuasion and message is necessary to differentiate products. In fact, some leading companies are beginning to recognize this change and develop tools and/or POVs on this topic (See Eric Schaffer’s article, “Beyond Usability; designing web sites for persuasion, emotion, and trust” and Forrester Research’s report, “Use Persuasive Content to Improve the Customer Experience”).

Design artifacts rarely include “real” content

I understand the need for lorem ipsum text and placeholder imagery. I am an information architect, after all. When working on an overarching framework for a web experience and creating a flexible design system, it makes sense to start with concepts and relationships, and to establish the right models and structures first. However, the more we start illustrating these concepts at the page level, the more we must concern ourselves with content and the overall message we want to create. By relying too heavily on placeholder text and graphics, we begin to communicate a level of reality that is problematic. It’s at this point in the process that the actual content should be considered and where our design deliverables should communicate these details.

Obviously, exploration of visual styles, hierarchy, and the overall visual language is crucial at this stage. That said, effective content to support those elements is absolutely essential for design success. The content works in conjunction with our visual language and style to help people move through and understand the information space they’re in. The more the design and content can be explored, iterated, and finalized together during this phase, the fewer problems we’ll encounter when the site goes live. Dr. Browyn Jones said it best in her 2007 article, titled Better Writing Through Design:

“Ideally, you should work with a writer from day one to design the voice of the copy in conjunction with the visual language of the site. And getting a writer involved early can help you solve lots of other problems—from content strategy issues to information architecture snags. Remember that writers are creatives too, and they are, in many cases, the keepers of the content your design ultimately serves.”

Lack of value assigned to content

When taken as a whole, the general perception is that content teams are production teams and therefore non-creative. Taken as a whole, content teams are typically highly focused on production and publishing issues. An unfortunate side effect is that these individuals are brought in much too late in the process, immediately playing catch-up, and trying to understand the bigger design decisions that were made. In many cases, the only information that they have to go on is a lot of ‘lorem ipsum’ or other placeholder content.

What Designers Can Do to Address these Problems

As a design community the first thing we can do is recognize the problem and want to fix it. I’d suggest that we look at it selfishly at first, realizing that if content fails, our designs fail. Period. There are a number of tactical things we can do with every project to mitigate the risks.

1. Rethink the need for specific content

Do you really need that introductory text? What about those thumbnail images? What will those elements really accomplish for your design? Are they necessary? Many of the content components we include don’t contribute to design goals or the users ability to perform a task. Simply remove those from the design entirely. The more concrete we are about what is and isn’t open for interpretation (or worse, misrepresentation) the fewer surprises we’ll see in those functional environments.

2. Explore Information Graphics & Visualizations

Take a step back from your designs and see what information can be communicated more effectively using visualizations and/or informational graphics. Let the user’s ‘scanning’ behavior work to your advantage. What can be communicated better with simple imagery than with text? How can that general concept be applied to your overall design paradigm? This critical extra step will improve and streamline the user experience. If you’re not the best person to create these assets, bounce your ideas off of the visual designers and production artists. Reviewing your own work this way will dramatically improve your design. As a bonus, the more perspectives you hear during this process, the better informed you’ll be to solve the design problem.

3. Write (some) content

If you can’t get a copywriter or content expert working with you from day one, spend some time writing draft content or sketching actual imagery and place it into your design artifacts. The goal isn’t to be perfect, but to communicate to stakeholders and partners the intent behind a particular content element or component. Bring the design to life and create actual content, headlines, text, instructions, headers, and imagery. Force feedback on those elements at the same time This will force you to think through the necessity of the content, the importance of the message, and force the same thought from your stakeholders. This means using lorem ipsum sparingly, particularly when designing critical web pages or elements that significantly impact the experience. Don’t rely on someone else to do it without first thinking hard about it yourself.

4. (Really) Collaborate with your content partners

The collaboration that we demand from developers should parallel those we have with our content partners: copywriters, strategists, production artists.

The collaboration that we demand from developers should parallel those we have with our content partners: copywriters, strategists, production artists. Often times, the content teams or copywriters are working with brand, marketing, or product teams on the creation of ‘final’ content. They understand what those teams need to accomplish and what they’re trying to communicate. Rather than have that process happen without your oversight, get involved early and often with these people and describe your vision, solicit their input, and ask for help clarifying your message and assumptions. This back and forth (like the one we expect to have with development) needs to happen with our content partners as well. Become friends with them. Remember, their skills at persuasion, messaging, branding, and simply overall writing prowess can only improve our designs.

5. Package real content with the visual mock-ups

Whether it’s visual comps, or a prototype, it’s important that whomever is responsible for creating and approving the content is actually involved with the visual designer and prototyper as they ‘package’ that deliverable. It’s impossible to fully evaluate the effectiveness of a web experience without having the content represented and under the same microscope as the design. Brand, product, and even training teams all have their own perspectives about what the content must communicate and are contributing to its development and we don’t want our design to fall apart once this ’collaborative’ writing process starts. Assign accountability to content upfront and place content professionals under the same creative deadlines you’re marching to.

There are a variety of tools and software emerging that can help you work with content. For example, Adobe InCopy hooks into Adobe InDesign. It’s just a matter of time before we start seeing integration points with Photoshop and other standard web design software and tools. But even without formal tools, the important step is that ‘real’ content is represented and tells a more complete story about the design you want to put out there.

Conclusion

It’s up to you to assess whether these content gaps are a problem in your design environment or not. Admittedly, this problem is more applicable to larger web sites and online businesses given variety of stakeholders (read: opinions). That doesn’t mean that these concepts don’t apply to the social web, or smaller marketing or micro web-sites. They do. It’s just that how critical this issue is depends on the size and scope of the website or application you’re designing.

This problem is common in many organizations (small and large). As a design community, we hold the power to 1.) change how we think about content, 2.) bring other roles into our processes, and 3.) change how we communicate with stakeholders and partners. Collaboration is what we strived for when developers shut us out, now it’s our turn to open up and let our content partners in and build even better experiences for our customers.