Today, the gaming industry is valued at more than $300 billion, surpassing movies and music's combined markets. Despite gaming being an immersive visual experience, it shares a common trait with its two rivals - storytelling. In fact, two of the most popular video games - Animal Crossing and Borderlands 2 - have attracted users not only because of their extraordinary designs but also through great storytelling.
Jeff Zeldman, the founder of A List Apart, was the first to introduce the concept of “content-first” design. Zeldman believes that content creation and management are not isolated from the processes of UX, design and front-end development because the content is the experience.
The question of a design-first or content-first approach may become confusing, especially during the redesigning of a new website. In this article, we build a case for the content-first approach in the context of a website redesign.
1. Content-first shapes the design framework
Typically, the design-first approach involves finalising the design by placing dummy content. However, when the final content replaces the placeholder text at the HTML/CSS stage, the number of characters often exceeds or does not fit into the allotted space.
Therefore, a content-first approach is more productive during a website redesign. Ideally, the content should be finalised first. This enables the designers to create a user-friendly UI and UX, including selecting colours, design theme, vectors, etc., based on the messaging of the content.
2. The content-first approach helps in creating a responsive design
Users expect websites to be responsive across various device sizes. Deciding on the content before the actual redesign helps to visualise the break-points in different layouts. When the final content does not align well with the placeholder, the designer must restructure the entire design to suit various screen sizes. To save time, designers trim the content blindly to fit into the smaller screen size resulting in a potential loss of important messaging critical to the business. On the contrary, users will find a consistent brand story across all the platforms when the main messages are defined.
3. Content-first helps chart the user journey
A conversion-oriented website is designed in a hierarchical way where the navigation is properly laid out to capture visitors' attention through the content architecture.
Although aesthetics and visuals of a website serve as great first impressions for users, the messaging on the website will direct their subsequent clicks and page visits. The website copy acts as a compass guiding the designers to create the right calls to action and position the design elements in the right place.
4. The content-first approach saves time
Creating the content strategy sooner allows us to calculate the cost of both content and design. When the proto content is prepared in the first stage, it leaves more time for editing and proofreading while the design team develops the framework.
With the actual copy or its prototype to guide them, designers will not have to tweak the layout at the end or ask the copywriters to make multiple revisions. This will keep the website redesign project on schedule.
5. The content-first approach saves money
When a website redesign begins without content, the process will likely devolve into an endless series of tweaks down the road. The revisions arising out of the to-and-fro between the designers and the content team will add to the cost. This can be easily saved simply by finalising the content first.
6. The content-first approach allows for better collaboration
In the traditional design-first approach, the designers are responsible for building out the structure of a design and the content. Introducing the copywriter to the team during the planning stage will help the designers and writers collaboratively work on the context, problem and solutions.
Designers may exchange their vision with copywriters and vice versa. Such a close collaboration helps in quickly resolving issues and identifying opportunities while bringing consistency and broader perspectives.
7. The content-first approach for SEO leverage
The best-designed website is as good as the number of visitors it attracts and the conversion opportunity it creates. Investing in SEO content generates organic traffic and a higher search ranking.
In the content-first approach, the writers have the upper hand to do research and analysis for utilising the right keywords and content flows from one section to another. By introducing SEO towards the start of a website redesign process, the website may enjoy good traffic performance from the relaunch itself.
8. The content-first approach brings consistency
Consistency is key to creating a lasting influence on users. When the copywriters are asked to write the copy after the design is ready, their copy will invariably be influenced by the website's current mood, tone and aesthetics. This approach puts them in a box while leaving little room for creativity.
However, the content-first approach gives the writers free rein to play with language that best caters to the end-users. The selected tone or messaging will translate into the overall theme of the website redesign. This process is crucial for establishing a distinct brand voice for the business.
9. The content-first approach for better conversion
The content-first approach helps in prioritising quality over quantity. An experienced copywriter may add storytelling in defining the product or service, turning the website’s content into an enduring brand story.
Businesses should place the site’s central message strategically to influence the psyche of the visitors or users. A content-first website feels like an enchanting story reflecting a sense of authenticity and helping the business stand out from the competition.
10. The content-first approach for better quality
Revisions are an inevitable part of a website redesign project. But, multiple rounds of revisions may frustrate the team, negatively affecting the overall quality of the project and the design agency’s reputation.
Iterations in the website copy due to design tweaks prevent the writers from giving their creative best. Similarly, when the designers are expected to tweak the layout repeatedly to fit the content, their creativity is compromised. The content-first approach frees both the writers and developers to focus on their respective strengths and reduce iterations.
How to execute the “content-first” approach?
- Planning and creating a content strategy is the first step. A good content strategy will guide the plans for the who (audience), what (subjects) and where (site architecture) of content creation.
- The second step is mapping out content through information architecture intuitively and logically. This sitemap will act as a blueprint helping the writers to identify the primary, secondary and tertiary pages.
- After creating a clear outline, one must do a content audit and create a content inventory of all existing documents and pages. It will then be easier to figure out the content based on the website’s goals.
- Businesses should evaluate their brand promise and define precisely how they want to communicate their values through content. The next step will be to create a style guide that will ensure a standard for the structure, language, tone, formatting and SEO across all pages.
- Once ready, the content style guide should be passed to the designers, so they have a vision sooner in the process and can offer any valuable input from their perspective.
- The writers can then write compelling web copy in line with the current information and guidelines. This involves rewriting parts of existing content as well as writing fresh content.
Traditionally, at the start of a website redesign process, clients want to see the page design before generating the content for the page and convincing them to work on content creation first before visual design can feel daunting. However, if agencies communicate the content-first approach to the clients efficiently, they will save both parties a lot of energy and time.
Rian van der Merwe summed it up beautifully, “If we design before we have content, we effectively create the packaging before we know what’s going to go in it. And if the content doesn’t fit the package, there are only two options: start from scratch, or try to jam the content into the existing package.”