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’
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)