Why “content first” should be your new war cry
We’re not all designing our content right. There. I said it. Maybe you, personally, are doing a great job, but most of us aren’t. We can, and should do better. We owe it to ourselves, our clients, and most importantly, to our users. “Content is King.” That’s been a mantra for so long that it’s almost become a cliché. We know content matters. We know why it matters. Why then, do so many of us treat it as, if not an afterthought, a matter of lower priority? Why aren’t we designing our content first, before we touch any other aspect of our content-driven sites? We should be. Before we touch any other part of the design, we should be thinking about out how our users will be interacting with the content. We should figure out how that might benefit them, and the website’s owners. Users don’t want to spend their time admiring your website. It’s not what they’re there for. They’re there to find what they’re looking for, and move on to the next task in their day. They might be looking for information on your product or service, news, a photo, or any number of things; and they just want to find it, and get out. On an emotional level, they’re searching for the solution to a problem. That problem might be that they need a new blender, or that they need to research a topic, or just the fact that they’re bored. If your website solves their problem, they come back for more. Delivering what users want as quickly as possible is the secret to making them happy.
Sometimes we do things wrong just because that’s how we’ve always done them. You’ve got a new project, so you might create a mood board, scribble out a few wire-frames, then open up Photoshop. There, you start working on the header for the home page, because to you, that’s the most fun and creative place to start. Unless that full-screen-height or half-screen-height header graphic is incredibly informative, it might very well not be what your users need.
Other people are doing it…
Yeah, I tend to rag on those large headers, even as I use them from time to time. They’re fancy, they tend to look good, and if that many other people are using them, they can’t be all bad. Can they? This is the problem with trends. Appropriating good ideas is one of the most important ways to learn good design, but it can also be limiting. The approach that works for others might not be right for your content or your audience.
We just don’t know what we’re doing.
Falling back on the same old design patterns can also be a result of simple ignorance. This is not ignorance of design principles, but ignorance of a less forgivable variety: we don’t know our audience. I understand that actually getting to know your audience can be difficult at times. I’ve worked with a lot of smaller companies and individuals who simply did not have any sort of a budget for user research or testing. In these cases, we had to guess, and/or rely on research performed by others. Problem is, I’ve seen bigger organizations with bigger budgets rely on guesswork too. Then they ask why their brand spanking new solution isn’t getting the results they’d hoped for.
So how do we change this?
The fundamental problem is not that “big headers are bad”. It’s not that we still need to worry about the fold. (Though it does seem that users mostly prioritize content at the top of the page. Go figure.) These individual design choices can’t usually even be categorized in such simple terms as “good” and “bad”. There are exceptions, but for the most part, the real decision to be made is whether or not a given design choice gives your users what they want, fast. Those of us who still don’t give our content the priority it deserves need to change both our perspective and our process.
Get some knowledge up in here!
The first part of any design job should be to get as much information on your (or your client’s) users and/or potential audience as you can. Existing websites should have analytics. Larger organisations may already have results from user testing experiments for you to look through. If none of that is available, start Googling. Chances are, someone else has already put together at least some of the information you need. If not, it looks like you get to be the first to experiment. That can be a lot of fun on its own.
Design your content first.
When wire-framing, planning the aesthetics, mocking up your design, and even when prototyping, focus on the content first. In fact, I contend that all web designers should follow a formula that looks like this to achieve efficient, user-centered design: Content > Navigation > Everything Else. There will be overlap between those first two bits, especially in your calls to action, and that’s one reason why navigation is the next most important thing after designing the content itself. After all, navigation is how users get from one screen full of content to another. Once you have those two components properly planned out, every other aspect of your site’s design, including branding, frills, fancy graphics, and animated .gif backgrounds (just kidding), should fall into place. In the end, the content is what matters most, and a designer’s job is to make it as easy to find as possible.