Creating Good User Experiences by Focusing on Content

November 9, 2015

Content is everyone’s business. People in many different roles work toward shared project goals—whether they’re content strategists, UX designers, product managers, or Web developers. The outcome of both business-focused and user-centered goals is the user’s experience, and that user experience should have one thing at its heart: content.

The more you can embed content strategy into every step of your design process, the better the user experience will be. It is essential both that content be useful and that its presentation be usable. After all, it’s the content that brings users to your Web site.

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The Importance of Good Content to User Experience

Users don’t come to your Web site to appreciate its design or fancy interactions. These may catch their attention once they get there, but it is their need for information that brings them to your site. They may need a store’s opening time, product details, directions, reviews, contact details, or service information—all content. No matter how good the design and functionality of a Web site is, if the content is poor, the overall user experience will be disappointing.

Because content is so crucial to the user experience, it seems nonsensical for conversations about content not to happen across an entire project team—including clients when appropriate. Without content, what are you designing? Without content, how can you make decisions about the necessary functionality and technology to support it?

Freelance consultant Sophie Dennis says, “If you’re focused on making wireframes and designs or building interactive prototypes, what you create can all too easily end up being basically a bunch of gray boxes saying ‘some content goes here.’” The risks of this approach are great and plentiful.

Paula Land summarizes these risks in her book, Content Audits and Inventories:

“Web site redesigns are sometimes driven by the creative or UX teams. Sometimes this results in content being an afterthought or being brought into the project after templates have been created. This can result in a large amount of rework later when the content doesn’t fit the templates and either the templates have to be redeveloped or the content reconfigured.

“These headaches and expense can be avoided if all affected disciplines are on board and working together from the start.”

Bridging the Gap Between Content Strategy and UX Design

This is by no means a criticism of designers or UX professionals. Creating good content is hard enough when it is your primary role on a team or within an organization. Adding this on top of an entirely different role makes doing it successfully harder still. But this is not a hopeless situation. You can bridge the gap between the two disciplines of content strategy and UX design.

Let me be clear on one thing: Content discussions and a better design process are possible without delivering all of the final content up front. If you can achieve that, fantastic! But the reality is that accomplishing this will always be the Holy Grail of Web-site redesign projects. It’s like the chicken-and-egg dilemma, but for content and design. Which comes first? Well, strategy should come first—and strategizing requires that you answer a lot of questions.

At the very least, the designers and developers on a project team should strive to understand the purpose of the content on each page. This means you need to answer many questions from several different perspectives, including the following:

  • content
  • design
  • technology, or development
  • business needs
  • user needs
  • governance

Karen McGrane has created a great visualization of some of the questions you should ask in relation to some of these facets of content strategy, as shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1—A slide from Karen McGrane’s UX Week 2010 talk, “Why UX Needs Content Strategy”
A slide from Karen McGrane's UX Week 2010 talk, Why UX Needs Content Strategy

Thus, Web-site redesign projects require teams to build a lot of bridges between disciplines and teams. Get designers involved in content discussions at the beginning of a project so they can start to understand what they are designing, why, and who it’s for. Include developers, too, so they can raise any warning flags in terms of what is or is not possible within the constraints of the technology. Encourage designers and developers to start communicating early.

Although your primary focus will be on what is necessary for your current project, ask questions regarding post-launch needs, too. Karen McGrane’s diagram again provides a good reference: Who will maintain the content and the technology?

If everyone understands a Web site’s content early on, you can make decisions about the governance of that content and put processes, systems, and documentation in place to ease the work. What benefits does this offer in creating a good user experience? Well, it ensures that a site’s content is consistent—and since you can manage and update the content efficiently, you can always keep it relevant and useful to users.

Providing Context with Content

Even once a UX designer has a good understanding of the content and has completed the content strategy and planning, the content still may not yet exist. Perhaps the client or an internal stakeholder is writing the content in tandem with the design work. However, you can still embed content thinking into the design phase. Content Strategist Liam King is a champion for proto content, and I agree with his approach. He states that designing with Lorem Ipsum placeholder content “is inert, meaningless, and lacks context.” When final content is not yet available, Liam recommends that designers use one of the following types of proto content to add context to their work:

  • content on the current site
  • competitors’ content
  • throw-away content that you’ve written
  • draft content—while you’re waiting for signoff
  • sample content that you’ve commissioned

UX and product designer Alex Morris sums this up nicely:

“Design has to work hard to help the narrative of your content play out. Design provides context, inferred intent, trust, and helps bring content to life. It’s a tricky balance to find where design helps that narrative without getting in the way. To nail that level of nuance, you absolutely have to be designing with real content rather than faking it.”

This is why those proto content options are better than placeholder content or Lorem Ipsum. They provide some degree of context for the project team, and it is that context that enables the team to make better decisions. The outcome is a better user experience.

Your Inner Content Strategist

In a recent guide titled Content Strategy for UX Designers, author Liam King encourages UX professionals to consider what your inner content strategist should be thinking. This means, as part of  your regular processes and practices, you should take a step back and start asking questions about the content.

Ollie Wells, a digital creative, says, “A UX designer must be aware of the ways in which content is consumed by people and how content delivered through all channels must be planned and maintained.” A UX designer’s ability to ask the right questions about the content, at the right time, will reveal insights about the content that lead to a better user experience.

Now, let’s look at some UX-focused tasks and think about what content questions you could ask during your design and research processes.

Creating User Stories

You’ve identified user needs and expressed them as user stories. What do these user stories reveal? Perhaps they tell you

  • what content types you need to create
  • whether those content types already exist
  • whether content should be multilingual

When you work with actual user stories, you can start to ask more specific questions and gain further insights. At this point, you can start to apply content thinking to your usual design practices. There is no need to change what you do—just add a new layer.

Conducting a Competitive Analysis

During a competitive analysis, when you’re looking at competitors’ sites from a content strategist’s point of view, you can determine what language and vocabulary your competitors use. Perhaps this analysis may reveal an industry standard to which you can adhere. You can also spot other content conventions such as preferred map types and the use of icons or abbreviations. Do they use Tel, Telephone, Phone, or something else?

In addition to looking at the format and structure of your competitors’ content, note what types of content your competitors are providing. Should you include all of that content, too? This is not just a matter of looking at competitors’ sites from an aesthetic point of view to determine, for example, whether all of them use a similar color palette. Look at what they’re saying to their users and how their site designs support that narrative.

Mapping User Flows

When you’re mapping user flows, based on your understanding of the content that users need, you can note what templates you should create. This is where your content knowledge can start to influence the structure and the technology of the site. What content do users need, when, and in what form? Thinking about this enables you to design and develop whatever technology is necessary to support and deliver on a site’s content requirements—for example, what fields you need in the CMS.

Designing Content Models

If your site requires calls to action, panels, or other modules, you can make decisions about where they should appear and how the CMS will display them. You can also consider the treatment of other types of media such as imagery and video.

Think about the workflow for different processes here. For example, if a user submits a question or query, what happens to that information? Who receives it? What information do you provide to users once they submit something or get in touch?

Asking what your inner content strategist should be thinking will likely reveal some issues that you need to resolve. Perhaps you’ve completely neglected a media type, workflow, or content type. Doing this can also validate your earlier decisions, making this time well spent.

Asking Questions to Discover Insights

At each step throughout a project—from kickoff to planning, design to implementation, and launch to post-launch activities, ask questions about the content. If there is a content person working with you at each stage of the process, make the most of it. But make sure that person is also considering design and development issues.

If there isn’t a dedicated content person on your project, make sure that everyone on the project team asks questions about the content. The result will be a better shared understanding of the purpose of the site, who it is for, how it meets users’ needs and achieves business goals, and how you can maintain the content. Bridge the gaps between disciplines, keep content front and center, and ensure a more pleasant project experience for your team, as well as a better experience for your users. 

To find out more about bridging the gap between content and user experience, download the free guide, Content Strategy: A Guide for UX Designers, by Liam King, my colleague at GatherContent.

Content Strategist at GatherContent

Cardiff, Wales, UK

Robert MillsAs a Content Strategist for GatherContent, a content collaboration platform, Robert manages the content lifecycle—from strategy to implementation, production, measurement, and refinement. He previously worked as a Studio Manager for a design agency and as an Audience Research Executive for BBC Wales. Five Simple Steps published his book, Designing the Invisible, in 2011. Robert has also written for Net Magazine, Smashing Magazine, 24 Ways, WebTuts+, and The Pastry Box. He is a journalism graduate and is putting his experience in research and writing to good use in his current content strategy role. Robert has spoken at several leading industry events, including Second Wednesday, Revolution Conf, Handheld Conf, and Bath Content Strategy Meetup. He collects typewriters and has two cats.  Read More

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