Designing digital products with a content-first mindset
By Hayley Komen, Consultant at Freethinking
Ask a South African what ‘content strategy’ is. Chances are, they’ll say it’s got something to do with writing content. Copywriting. And if you Google it you’ll find ten different explanations on each of the thousands of search pages returned.
Why should you care? Because your business could be missing out on a valuable piece of strategy.
So what is content strategy? Well it’s not content marketing, content creation or copywriting. It’s not brand development or campaign management. Those are all useful, and content strategy might touch on them, but it’s not those things.
Strategy is, by definition, a plan for achieving a specific goal. So content strategy is a plan for using content to achieve a specific goal. Specifically, it is the plan for creating, distributing, monitoring and managing content to meet your business goals. It connects all the random activities related to content and gives them a purpose. As such, it contributes to your business’ bottom line; it supports your business strategy.
So to design with a content-first mindset is to design with a content strategy in place to support your business goals.
A content-first design approach has several benefits, such as:
Team members have clarity on the project’s purpose from the beginning.
As a result, fewer iterations are needed and delivery is quicker.
Content creators can start their work early in the project and work in parallel with designers.
Design optimises the content instead of content simply ‘fitting in’ with design.
Once you’ve launched your project, you can measure the impact of your content.
You can quickly react to any problems and continuously improve your content.
But we often start new design projects with no view of the content at all. Our clients might intuitively know what they are trying to achieve, but they first want to ‘see what’s possible’. Then, when the visual elements materialise, they settle into the misconception that content simply needs to fill the gaps. They never get around to thinking about the message they’re trying to communicate, or what action they want the customer to take.
The content strategy’s reason for being is to meet the business objectives. As such, we must understand what the business is trying to achieve – really well. This means consulting with stakeholders at different levels and getting an inside-out, upside-down view of the business.
We must understand our customers equally well. We must know how they view the company and its offer, what language they use, what they want from the company, who they are, where they are and how they prefer to interact with the company.
Then, we must align the business’ needs with the customer’s needs. This is the ‘how to’, the crux of the content strategy.
A content strategy is your plan for creating, distributing, monitoring and managing content to meet your business goals.
Define the messages
If you don’t have a clear picture of what you’re trying to communicate, you won’t be able to meet your content objectives. Document your key messages so that you can share them with the team and avoid losing direction.
Choose the channels
How will you distribute your messages? Are users mostly on their mobile phones? Then short-form copy or podcasts might be best. Are they on desktops with Wi-Fi access? Then videos, large infographics and long-form copy might be appropriate. Or perhaps users start their research on a desktop and continue on their mobiles later on. Then you know you need to create a seamless experience between devices. Get a content strategist to work with your marketing team to set up an editorial calendar to deliver your messages.
Do an audit
The content audit reveals what content exists and where there may be gaps. It includes an inventory of your existing content, what information you have that could be turned into content and a competitor analysis. If your competitors are already doing a great job at educating your customers on the best ways to grow orchids, you would probably be wasting your time and money doing the same thing.
Organise the content
The content model describes the structure of your content, the key concepts relevant to your subject and the relationship between the different concepts. It should be designed with input from your subject experts, who will understand relevant terms and relationships. Content models are very useful because they guide writers in word use and how to structure their copy, and they help you manage your content. They also help designers understand how to express each piece of content consistently, and they help developers understand how to store content and make it available so that it can be reused in different contexts.
You’ll also need to describe the information architecture. Note that this is not the same as navigation. Information architecture is a conceptual view of the content and how it is organised. From this, a navigational structure might be built, or a different form of content discovery may be designed, such as search.
Wireframes will be produced to show designers and developers how content should be visually set out and to make sure it’s technically possible to implement the ideas. They also help you think through the detail of your design so that you can address problems early on.
This is the fun stuff – crafting the content. The content strategist will work with a designer, copywriter or other content producer to write the copy, create videos, podcasts, infographics and images, set up navigation, write error messages and alerts, name buttons, come up with link titles and everything else that’s required to realise the design. The strategist should create a style guide, so that anybody creating content does so consistently.
They will also define a search engine optimisation (SEO) strategy, which defines page titles, metadata and keywords. But be aware that the SEO strategy shouldn’t dictate how copy is written. Good copy will automatically use keywords that are relevant to your SEO strategy.
Designers can simultaneously work on the graphical elements, the ‘look and feel’. They will decide on a visual style guide, based on the content model and content style guide.
Then, the developer implements everything and we’re done! Or are we?
Monitor and evaluate
Your content has been set free, but it now needs to live and grow. The content strategist will define what success looks like and suggest ways to measure this. Analytics tools such as Google Analytics or Adobe SiteCatalyst can give you good insights into your content’s performance. You can also get direct feedback from your users through user testing or online surveys. As you gain deeper insights about how users interact with and respond to your content, you should keep fine-tuning it to make sure it keeps on meeting your goals.
Content-first design is not a buzzword or a new way of working. It is simply a logical way to run a project in the most efficient way possible, with the aim of delivering content to the right people, at the right time and in the right place, and so maximising your return on investment.