Content Centred Design for websites – an overview (Part 1)

June 20, 2010

This post is about content and how it should be recognized as a major player in any web design or intranet project. I have written about the concept of content centred design before and how online versions of hard copy content objects can lead to a much diminished user experience. I used the online dictionary as an example of this.

I wrote then that –

‘Content must be viewed as a stakeholder’

‘content has a structure and a purpose which is independent of the user or web designer’

Nothing I have seen in the time since I wrote the above has changed my mind. Content must be considered as important a stakeholder in the design process as the user in order to ensure a balanced, rational approach to any web design project. By ignoring this fact designers and web teams are overlooking an essential element that would contribute to a better final product.  By either ignoring content, or leaving any consideration to near the end of a project, the final design has a high likelihood of being sub-optimal.

I have been thinking about some of the recent developments around content and the arrival of the ‘content strategist’. Even with this new interest in content I still think that it is getting a raw deal and will continue to get a raw deal until a paradigm shift occurs and a new way of considering content is adopted across the piece.

I think I can best illustrate my concerns by taking an example from the ‘real’ world.

Content as a library book

Let’s imagine that our web site is a library. We’ve designed a wonderful building with lots of different ways of getting in. We have laid all our shelves out in a logical way with a big label at the end of each aisle stating what the aisle contains and even a label for each shelf on an aisle. We have even thought the structure through to the point that categories are broken down even further by using a classification system such as the Dewey Decimal or Library of Congress systems. This allows us to break down our categories into quite a fine granularity.

So now we have completed our library. It looks great and we are all set to go. At last we can start opening those crates of books that have been sequestered in the basement, put them on the shelves and open for business.

But wait, when we open the crates we find we have problems –

– The books are all odd sizes and the biggest books don’t fit on our shelves while the smallest leave lots of empty space on the shelf

– We find that all of the books are all about medicine meaning that most of our categories mean nothing. Instead we should have been looking only at medicine classification systems as the one we are using isn’t granular enough to cope with all the specialities that exist in medicine

– We find we can’t design a classification system for the content because we don’t have the specialised knowledge required

– All our user documentation assumed a general user and is now of no use whatsoever

Does this sound familiar?

If only we’d opened up the crates before we had spent all that time designing something that was just a useless waste of time!

Respect the author

I feel that by ignoring content a profound disrespect is being paid to the authors of content. In any balanced design the author must be recognized as an important stakeholder. In websites where content is important (intranets this means you!) and the main purpose of the site is to connect users with that content then it is obvious that placing all the emphasis on the user is only getting you 50% of the way there.

In most cases it seems that the design comes first and the content is considered last. Both content and users should always come first and centre. If content is already in existence then real content should be used in every design, mock up and prototype. During user research this will not only give you a more realistic design but will give the users the chance to comment on how the content is presented to them. If your web site is brand new and content doesn’t exist then it is well worth spending some time right at the beginning of a project to identify some realistic content types that can be used during the design process.

Ensuring that content is front and centre in the design process is the only way to respect the author or potential author. Let’s face it users may have views about what a web site may look like but this will only be peripheral when compared to the importance of the quality of the content and how well it is presented to them.

Why ‘Content Strategy’ isn’t the answer

Due to the problems many content heavy web sites have experienced there has been a chink of light appearing lately when it comes to content and web sites. The Content Strategist is now amongst us. So I should be happy then. Absolutely not!

When I first heard of this I thought ‘What a good idea!’ However the more I thought about it the more uneasy I got. I have now come to the conclusion that it is not a good idea. OK at least someone is sticking up for content but I don’t think it is the right way to get content recognized within the larger world of web design. We clearly cannot start up a new discipline whenever we encounter a new problem but I fear that this is the way it is going. UXD or ID or IA or whatever you want to call it is in great danger of siloing off large parts of the design process. The larger discipline will disappear as it is broken into ever smaller shards. Having content specialists (except for niche applications) is not the way to go.

For any project we need a mixture of skills and approaches. Users are now recognized as important stakeholders by many members of project teams not just the UX specialists. Just having someone to represent the user will only get you so far, what you really need is everyone on a team to build the users’ needs into everything they do. This is what content needs, for everyone in the team to be aware of its importance right from the start of a project, and to keep that awareness high right through to its end.

In Part 2 I will be exploring a possible methodology that might be adopted to ensure that content and users are given equal weight so that a balanced design can be achieved.

(Thanks to Dawn Endico for the great Flickr CC photo)

13 Responses to “Content Centred Design for websites – an overview (Part 1)”

  1. Great article! Thanks for writing..

  2. Another great read… keep up the good work!

  3. Jeri Hastava Says:

    I love your library analogy, but I can’t agree with your position on content strategy.

    To me, it isn’t a new discipline that simply “started up.” Content professionals have been championing the importance of content in web projects for years.

    I respectfully suggest that you are missing an important role that a Content Strategist fills, which is to make sure that “…everyone in the team is aware of its [content’s] importance right from the start of a project, and to keep that awareness high right through to its end.”

    • patrick c walsh Says:

      Many thanks for your comment. I fully understand your point and to be honest until fairly recently I would have supported it fully. However having had some time on my hands recently I have been giving the whole ‘content’ thing some thought. I am passionately on the side of ‘content’ having spent a large part of my working life writing procedures and documenting processes.

      I am not questioning whether ‘content ‘ shouldn’t be championed but whether this can only be done by a ‘content strategist’. It has concerned me for some time that the people who make up web design teams are getting more and more specialised, which can be good up to a point, but if this goes too far then it will lead to activities being siloed with only few members of a team taking responsibility for something that should concern the whole team, right from day one.
      I also think that it engenders an attitude of ‘Content? Not my responsibiity!’ amongst team members.

      It is also setting the bar too high for many web projects by saying that content can only be managed by a content strategist. Many web projects just can’t afford this overhead and I think that they are missing out when they can, to a large extent, manage many simple content issues for themselves.

      I am hoping to get Part 2 up next weekend and I would appreciate any comments you might have on that too.

  4. Jeri Hastava Says:

    Thanks for responding Patrick.

    I see your point (and raise you 10 – :-)). As a web professional running my own small company, I agree that not every project calls for a “content strategist,” and in fact, not every project has the budget for a specialized content strategist.

    Still, as you say, every project *team* should embrace the concepts and goals of developing a content strategy, and assuming appropriate responsibilities.

    The distinction I seem to be making is content strategy vs. content strategist.

    I look forward to Part 2.

    • patrick c walsh Says:

      Thanks for the response. Hopefully I will cover some of your points in Part 2 and I’d really appreciate your thoughts on the approach I will be outlining


      • Jeri Hastava Says:

        You bet. The most exciting part of this conversation for me is that we’re having this conversation. Not so true only a few years ago.

  5. Vivek Says:

    Hi Patrick, Nice to see something from you that made me sit up and read,…yet again!

    Being a content person myself, what I have noticed from experience is that not all organisations have processes/ guidelines in place(in case they do, they are probably lying in some corner of the Intranet) surrounding content management good practices.
    More often, I see content dumped onto the data bases leaving the job for the system to figure out what the dump means.

    I come from a part of the world where large numbers of the systems/IT professionals specialize extensively to the extent that a handful of people even look at the functional aspects of content and put them in perspective after or before (as rightly mentioned in your example) designing the so called system.
    Probably as a result of this there’s room for a new genre of work in the Content space.

    “Content is King”. The King should be treated with some respect.

    • patrick c walsh Says:

      Nice to hear from you. I agree totally. It’s not just your part of the world where I think roles are getting too specialised. I think there is space for ‘generalists’ on web projects who might be responsible for helping with the overall strategy including content. But that’s for Part 2…

      All the best

  6. Vivek Says:

    Eagerly waiting for part II of this article.

  7. […] en gevonden worden – daar gaat het om bij content. Lees dit verhelderende blog over content, en het belang daarvan. De schrijver vergelijkt een website met een bibliotheek en […]

  8. […] Content Centred Design for Websites Patrick Walsh описывает подход Content Centered Design, который должен повысить ценность контента в интерфейсах. Статья также сравнивает CCD с другими методологиями проектирования. […]

  9. […] Content Centred Design for Websites Patrick Walsh описывает подход Content Centered Design, который должен повысить ценность контента в интерфейсах. Статья также сравнивает CCD с другими методологиями проектирования. […]

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