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  1. Web Design
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Webdesign

Four Challenges of Content-First Web Design

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When we talk about a “content-first approach” in relation to a website redesign project, we don’t mean getting all of the final content delivered before we start any design or development. Can you imagine that? It would be the holy grail of website projects.

What we do mean, however, is considering and thinking about content at each stage of a project. This steers teams to appropriate design decisions, which delivers better websites.

As Liam King says in his guide to Content Strategy for Website Projects

“when we treat content as an afterthought we limit our ability to make good design decisions and our sites fail to achieve their goals. It is a constant challenge we’ve been wrestling with for years, as we try to push content to the heart of the design process and the user experience.” – Liam King

Not considering content as an entire team, from the start, will result in one of three undesirable scenarios:

  • The design has to change to accommodate the content
  • Content is cut and shut to fit into the design
  • The entire project hangs in limbo whilst you wait for content.

None of these situations are good for team morale, client relationships and for getting projects live and invoiced for.

Considering content from the get-go is a good way to soothe and avoid these pains, but it doesn’t come without its challenges.

In this article I’m going to outline some of the key challenges to a content-first approach to planning, producing and publishing website content. I’ll also offer some solutions to those challenges so that you can start thinking content-first for your next project.

Challenge #1: Nobody Cares

The truth hurts! A content-first approach will only work if all those that need to be involved are on board. This can require an entire overhaul of processes, a lot of up front planning and perseverance.

Nope

Not everyone will be as involved in the content process as you may be, or they may just not care as much as you’d like them to. The way to get them to care is to focus on why considering content-first will make a difference to their role or to the business as a whole. Reasons include:

  • Saving time and money, as there will be fewer amends and less back and forth with content amends and approval.
  • The project schedule will stay on track, meaning the site will launch on time.
  • All design and development decisions will be informed by real content. Context is invaluable.

These may sound idealistic but they are real outcomes of adopting a content-first approach to your website project. They are outcomes from which of the team benefit, whether in-house or an agency working with clients. And let’s not forget that the other users will benefit too, because the content-focused decisions that have been made across the project team will result in a better user experience.

Challenge #2: Lack of Resource

Even if the entire team are behind the content-first approach, you may hear things like:

  • “We don’t have the time to change processes and add steps.”
  • “We don’t have the money to introduce the additional resource we need.”
  • “We don’t have the right/enough people to work in this way.”

If any or all of those ring true, the best way to overcome them is to start small. Perhaps some of these statements are linked to stakeholders still not buying into why content-first is a better way to work.

🎤  All by my-seeeelf

The reasons listed in challenge one may have resonated with them, but they really need to see results and without the right resource, this can be tricky. If this is the situation you find yourself in, just do. Audit a small section of the site and present your findings. Hopefully the insights you gain will reveal that you have content on the site that isn’t needed. That resource spent maintaining that irrelevant content can now be put to better use, such as auditing the remainder of the site.

Having results and data to support your case for why a content-first approach is necessary, and why investing in resource to achieve this is sensible, will make it difficult to be ignored.

Challenge #3: We Work in Silos

Everyone wants to give content the attention it deserves and you have the right people and resources to do so. That’s a great position to be in, but it by no means guarantees there won’t be further obstacles to overcome or no more difficult conversations to be had.

Every time I attend a conference I hear more stories about people struggling with content collaboration because of silos. Let’s break them down! Or rather, let’s connect them so we can all work towards a shared project goal with content at its heart.

work towards a shared project goal
Work towards a shared project goal

This sounds ideal but again, it can be difficult to achieve in practice because people already have ways of working and teams may be spread far and wide and not even work from the same physical space. Silos can be literal.

As well as explaining the benefits of working together as per challenge one, you can also introduce tools and tasks to your process to help with content collaboration and getting everyone working towards a shared goal.

Most website projects will have a discovery or engagement phase. This is the time to get all of the key project people together. Hopefully in the same room, but certainly in the same meeting even if that has to be done virtually.

This is the time to ask lots of questions about the content such as:

  • Do you know how much content you have on your current site?
  • Does the current content have dedicated (subject matter expert) owners:
  • Will you have a content style guide?

Other collaborative activities you can introduce here include content audits, a competitor content analysis and persona generation. Having input from all the teams within your organisation (or your clients) will reveal actionable insights about the content that may have otherwise gone undiscovered.  

Challenge #4: We Can’t Get Content From Writers/Clients

You have the process nailed down, the resource you need to move through that process successfully, and everyone is onboard to work collaboratively and in project harmony. That deserves a little celebratory dance. But don’t use all of your energy up celebrating, because you may now be faced with a further challenge: getting the content produced.

The individual or team responsible for delivering the actual content may be:

  • From your in-house team
  • From your client’s team
  • A third-party

Whoever is responsible for content production needs to be clear about the purpose of the content and for whom it is being written, i.e. the audience.

Even if they are armed with all they need to get writing, this doesn’t guarantee there won’t be delays as other projects demand attention and priorities change. Hopefully, a well defined workflow will alleviate any stress related to these issues that you may encounter.

Stop playing with clay and get that content written
Stop playing with clay, and get that content produced

But if you find that there is a bottleneck for content production and it just isn’t being delivered, you can keep things moving by using alternative content to the final, approved version.

Remember, content-first doesn’t mean having all the signed off content to hand before any design or development work starts. It is about embedding content into each step of the project so it is considered by all of the project team. Therefore, it is expected that you won’t have every piece of content you need from the get-go.

Rather than projects hanging in limbo whilst you do wait for content, you can use proto-content. As Liam mentions in his guide, 

“we don’t need perfect content to design and validate our imperfect prototypes, but we do need something better than gibberish.” – Liam King

I couldn’t have put it better myself.

Proto-content can be:

  • Current site content
  • Competitor content
  • Throw-away content you can write
  • Draft content
  • Commissioned sample content

All of the content from the above list is more helpful than “lorem ipsum” because it provides some degree of context. This means whilst content is being finalised and approved, you can still be working with designers and developers to make smarter decisions.

Putting it Into Practice

Even with some solutions discussed for the four challenges we have covered, it’s unlikely to be a shift you can implement overnight. Moving content-first requires organisational buy-in, refinement or processes, cultural change and a lot of patience.

Support your case for moving to this way of working with data and insights that can help you get others onboard.

Asking the right questions at the right time, and including the entire project team in that process, will ensure content is at the heart of the design process, and the eventual user experience.

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