Why a Content First Strategy is Important

Content Rules Everything Around Me

90% of all content online was created in the last 2 years — and 80% of that content is unstructured. That’s around 4.6 billion pieces of content in 2 years or roughly 2.5 billion GBs of data per day.

That’s a lot of articles, blog posts, pictures, videos, Tweets, pins, Facebook posts, music, maps, and much more — generated by users and produced professionally, shared and saved.

As more organizations recognize the need to strategically produce, organize, and market their content, the popularity of content strategy in the UX design process has grown exponentially.

While content strategy may mean different things in different organizations, and many are still learning what it means to them, one key benefit is how it encourages a content first design approach.

Putting content first is not a new idea in digital — the rise of responsive and adaptive layouts called for flexible content metadata that can adapt to different screen sizes. However, content is still an afterthought for many digital products, even though...

Content is the reason for the design.

Let’s not forget why people go online in the first place: to find interesting and useful content. They don’t go to a website to admire the visual design or download an app to marvel at the clean UI.

This is a shift in thinking for some designers, but not for their users and customers. Designers have mental models about how apps and websites work, usually from years of experience creating products and crafting design solutions. Individual users have different mental models, expecting a familiar UI design that helps them quickly find the information they need.

So if the content is the most important part, why do so many digital projects start with design and leave content tasks to the end? In some cases, it’s due to an outdated process left over from early websites with templatized layouts. Organizing, assembling, and producing content can also be daunting, and thus is frequently put off until the last possible moment before launch. But you don’t need the finalized content before starting design to be content first, an outline of what to expect will get you most of the way there.

Structured Content

To be clear, the structure of the content is more important than the actual words, images, files, etc. A content first approach doesn’t require that the content is fully written and polished before starting design or development. Defining the structure of the content and types of available content can have major benefits for digital teams and stakeholders at any phase of digital project. This structure of content is also known as the content model.

“A content model documents all the different types of content you will have for a given project. It contains detailed definitions of each content type’s elements and their relationships to each other”

- Rachel Lovinger, Content Modelling: A Master Skill.

Like an outline, a content model tells you what data will be contained within each individual entry, and the relationship of content types.

For example: on a website for a TV channel, the content model could include content types such as Series, Movies, Episodes, Schedule Listings, Photo Galleries, and News Articles. Each of these content types has various attributes — including images, genre, headlines, short descriptions, and long descriptions. Content types also have the ability to associate one content type to another — such as linking a photo gallery to the relevant Movie page. This can all be seen in a content model.

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Karen McGrane refers to the attributes of a content type as “chunks” of content that can be restructured and referenced in different ways for different platforms. This is a key principle in responsive and adaptive design, where only the content “chunks” best suited for a platform are delivered — such as, on mobile there may only room for a short description, while on larger screen sizes a longer description can be displayed.

Benefits of content-first strategy

A content first approach can help various roles on a digital team define their work, collaborate better, and produce better outcomes

Lorem Ipsum and Design Constraints

Lorem ipsum is one of a designer’s most-used tools. This Latin text is standard placeholder copy that is obviously not the real content, but allows designers to shape the look and feel of a web site or app. There are all sorts of fun spin-offs — such as Samuel L. Ipsum, Bacon Ipsum, Hipster Ipsum — but the main purpose is to have some filler text that can be used until the real content is produced.

Placeholder text can be beneficial to help designers highlight assumptions about where content is coming from and if such content actually exists, but it can lead to a false sense of confidence that project is closer to shipping then it really is.

Fake Content = Fake Confidence

Fake copy also encourages designing only for the best case scenarios — where titles don’t exceed 20 characters and every Movie has related video trailers and cast bios to fill out the page layout. Lorem ipsum can fill any amount of space, but real content is rarely so flexible. Anyone who’s worked in content, and especially localized content, is well-aware of the risk of breaking a page layouts with minimal support content or uber-long German translations.

Content can also be a useful constraint for designers - by providing more context about the actual types of content and metadata that will be available, designers can craft an experience that supports it.

“You can create good experiences without knowing the content. What you can’t do is create good experiences without knowing your content structure.”

- Mark Boultan, “Structure First. Content Always.”

Creating a common language

Beyond UX and visual design considerations, content models are useful tools for collaborating with cross-functional teams. A content model can become the common language for communicating content needs and creating more efficient workflows.

... for Developers
Developers benefit from content models to structure content management systems, by providing the requirements for necessary content types and attributes of each content type, and an understanding of how they relate to each other.

… for PMs
When collaborating with clients or stakeholders in the early stages of a project, creating the content model can help project and product managers keep the focus on the big picture content questions, instead of getting caught up on smaller design details.

Content is often one of the final deliverables to launch a new product, and delays in getting that content can frustrate even the most experienced PM. By creating content models early in the design phase, you can create a realistic sense of what content will be needed, and can give content authors a head start — instead of delivering them a built website and telling them to come up with some copy that fits.

.. for Content Creators
In this way, content models are useful for the writers and content managers who author and publish the content. Using the models as an outline, content creators can ensure they have all the relevant information needed in advance, and make the publishing workflow more efficient.

Content models are a valuable tool for aligning a team on a content-first strategy. Using some basic content strategy tools, any digital team can improve their content workflow and provide a better content experience to their users.

Ready to get started? Don’t just take my word for it — there are a ton of great resources about building content models. Here are a few of my favorites:

Written by

Digital professional, creative life. Product manager for design systems at REI.

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