On Content

You know, the thing your users actually come to your website for? Here are some guidelines from actual experience, both in my day job and these consults.

  1. If you have a content-heavy app or site, plan for making content as soon as possible. I don’t mean make space on the project chart about when you will make the content, I mean go get the content first. Go get it made, go get seed content from proto-users, trawl all the free content you can and suck it in to use, go copy some content from a competitor that you will replace before going live, and for god’s sake, most of all, if you need to get your content from other sources, go close your content deal first and know how you will pay the source so at least you can design the space for banner ads or interstitials well.

    You can’t wait with this. If you do not have the actual actual content ready to go when the experience is being designed, your design will be half-assed mediocre, just like most websites we see today, because the content and the design and the visuals and the everything are not coming together into seamless story-telling experience, but are being slotted together and then the seams papered over in a way you may not be able to see, but can feel as you use the site.

  2. This goes double if your app or site has to adapt to many screen-sizes. Designing for multiple screen-sizes and modalities, whether called fluid, responsive, adaptive, whatever, leads to nasty nasty surprises during testing, at best. At best. If you are not designing and testing with actual content, you are not in the ‘at best’ situation, and you will get burned.

    Maybe you can design with content that will be just like the content you think your users will make or your content deals will close, but oh boy, you’d better be right or there will be a lot of last-minute pain, and again, a mediocre site for quite the number of people on some of the screen sizes. You simply can’t make good decisions about what is important or not, what can be hidden on what screen, with Lorem Ipsum.

  3. Oh yeah, Lorem Ipsum, the fake content we designers use to fill space. Avoid like the plague. It is too seductive to mix and match and edit it to make it fit into exactly the space and alignment we want. This is especially a huge liability sites with user-generated content. I remember the time I got a design for an experience that I was supposed to implement—when I still did front-end dev—and thought “This design is not going to survive contact with reality,” so neat as it was, so nicely as the purported users wrote paragraphs, allowing for an even rhythm of elements. Of course it didn’t the moment actual users wrote single-line posts and ranting comments.

    Copy content from competitors while designing, if you do not have any of your own. Release a provisional ugly site, a test experience of some kind, to get example content from your target audience. Beg your friends. Anything. Just stay away from Lorem as much as possible unless you really really know your stuff and users.

  4. No brand names or technical terms as headlines or menu entries. I can’t tell you how many designs I have tested for clients that fell completely flat because users could not immediately guess what a menu or page or paragraph under some smashed-up-words term would lead them to. EcoFlight. VariPump. GlossTram. Those kinds of words.

    I know you paid an agency buckets to come up with these perfect words to capture some aspect of your product, but believe me, they do not invite exploration. People will not be tempted to read deeper to find out what your term is and they won’t open the menu that has that as a header; instead  they will flee to a site that doesn’t make them feel unwelcome and think so hard. I made this mistake myself, and 12 out of 12 tests I had a user just blankly staring at me, at my site, back at me, back at my site, and telling me they didn’t think this whole site was for them so they were already turned off. Learn from my mistake.

  5. Get either content, or get approvals from the stakeholders to make your own, but get one of the two. I know, this is utopia in a client-agency-designers environment, but if you really want a kick-ass digital experience, you need one of the two. If everything being made has to be written by group A and then signed off on by group B who actually have to punt it through to group C higher up first, then tested to find to not work for users—too many brand names in the title copy and menus and voice-overs—and then have to do it all over again and again, you will either blow past deadlines, not test enough to make sure the experience connects, or end up hurting some aspect of the design.

    If you have to make a new lawn-mower site, get the understanding, the deep knowledge, the love, the differentiators of the lawn-mower first—or at least the copy. Don’t go designing wireframe pages of lawn-mower image here and Lorem Ipsum there ‘to be filled in later’, because you will not be telling the story of this lawn-mower as effectively as you could, and your site or app will simply not make the makers of the lawn-mowers happy and they will get irritated and stingy. Know this lawn-mower inside and out, be able to sell this lawn-mower better than the makers, and only then go plan their mobile lawn-mower app. Yes, you will want a copy-writer to tell the lawn-mower story well, but they should already be deep into the lawn-mower prose and getting it approved, or getting the internal prose first and reworking it, before you start working on this app. If you are not guided by the Content in your design, what the hell are you being guided by?

    You want actual utopia? Get the stakeholders to make the content with you, be in the room as you make the site, or a Skype or email away, the actual people who have the power to sign off, not their delegates who will have to pass things up anyway.  Get the people who designed the lawn-mower and put their heart and soul into it. The reason start-ups so often can make such awesome tightly-designed experiences is not because they have no baggage, it’s because everyone is in the same room co-designing: the people who know the product so well they can sell it together with the people who know how to tell a great story digitally. If the people who all tell the story are not together, things will slow down or hurt.

  6. Don’t re-use content and hope for different outcomes, like a better website or app. If the content didn’t work the first time after a lot of effort, more effort won’t help much. If, as a client who wants a new digital experience, you feel your current site or catalog or app is shit, don’t cut corners. Get your new content done, get your agency or in-house designers deeply embedded in the feel of what makes your product great, and only then let them start.”Just use the copy / images / video of the old site to lay out the pages, we’ll get the new stuff later in place” is just not going to get you anything new and great.  Seriously consider dropping a gig that has this as its premise. Trust me on this.

  7. Can’t make any of the above happen? Shell out for really experienced people (hi there!) and make room in the plan to in Phase 1, yes, 1, do everything over again.  Or choose to be mediocre. One of the two. No, don’t think the great redesign will happen in Phase 2. The only companies that have Phase 2 are Agile software companies. Nobody else ever has a Phase 2, not for an external digital project, and not for an internal one in a waterfall environment.

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