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Cranky Tip #64

Lead With Content

Content has been at the heart of Web design for me ever since I built my first sites back in the mid-1990s. (That was after working a few years as a print journalist designing news pages with managers and peers drumming into my head that visual communication was a means to an end and that end was to tell the news of the day.)

We stocked our first Web teams with other newsroom refugees like me and together we groped around in the digital dark trying to figure out how to translate what we had learned in print into things that worked online. I didn’t know to call what I was doing “content strategy” any more than I knew to call how I structured sites “information architecture.”

I wish I could tell you that dedication to quality content is part of the newspaper design legacy, but unfortunately today’s endless arguments about designing with nonsensical versus real words started long before there was a commercial Web. I had the same conflict in newspaper art departments two decades ago when information graphic artists would rough out their design and leave room for somebody else to later fill in the “chatter.” Reporters are writers, they’d say, so reporters should write copy for graphics. But as the newspaper industry quickly discovered, writing an article has very little to do with crafting an information graphic.

For the best newspaper graphics, journalists create text and images in unison and the skillful execution and placement of elements tells a cohesive, powerful story. When text and image creators operate in isolation, their stories tend to be disconnected or incongruous. When text creation leads the way, images too easily become simple decoration; When text is treated as a detail to be added later, the graphic tends to lack weight and value.

Getting content and design to work in unison is just as important for Web sites. Content and design are partners in the effort to satisfy the specific goals of specific types of users. That makes just as much sense to me now as it did back in 1995. And now that people like Kristina Halvorson and Karen McGrane have built out content strategy as an area of expertise, content is that much more valuable in my day-to-day practice.

I recently consulted on a visitor experience project for a prominent Washington, D.C. attraction where technology, exhibit design and fundraising details kept distracting the team. The circular conversations just kept cycling over and over until content rode in on a white horse to save the day. As soon as I started using a holistic content strategy as an umbrella under which all of the project’s issues could be organized, the relationship of each issue to all other issues could be described and dealt with. That’s a trick I usually do by defining user experiences, but in this case, content was the better lever.

As the sophistication of content strategy tools sharply increased, opportunities also expanded for the rest of us. For example, I think the nearly universal acceptance of user personas has come at a high price. People, including many UX professionals, seem to embrace only the superficial aspects of fictional archetypes (specifically, humanizing customers and making their presence ubiquitous in the work environment) while abandoning Alan Cooper’s original intent (to use personas to solve specific design problems.) But watch a content strategist’s eyes widen as soon as you mention research-based personas. Their interest in using personas to validate content-related opinions and hypotheses brings vibrancy to what had become a paint-by-the-numbers tool.

Content inventories and audits have been part of my IA arsenal for a long time, but I have less experience with content templates, delivery channel strategies and communication plans. I’m really looking forward to figuring out how to use those and other content strategy tools and tactics to help me be a more effective user experience professional going forward.

For some UX projects, you just have to let content take the lead.

Tags for this article: content strategy, Design, Information architecture, newspapers, old fart memories, User experience

This article was posted on Sunday, June 12th, 2011 and is filed under Content Strategy.

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