Content First (And Why It Matters For Websites)

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I like a good metaphor. It makes it easy to translate the often ethereal nature of web development into something relatable to everyone.

After years of developing sites, I’ve found most business owners don’t care which version of which software I am using to make their awesome new website. They just care about the awesome part. Likewise, many don’t understand why having all the content ready before your website developers touch a single line of code streamlines the process and gives you better results.

Designing for Use

Imagine this scenario … 

You go to the architect you’ve chosen to design your dream home.

If you say to her, “I want my new home to be beautiful, all the carpet to be purple, and all the wood to be cherry.”

She then asks you, “How many bedrooms do you need? How many bathrooms would you like? Do you need a garage? Central air?”

If you answer is, “I will figure that out after you’ve designed the home” the architect will laugh you right out of her office.

Let’s assume she just smiles and decides to design your home regardless. She will probably be able to make some pretty basic assumptions about your future home—it probably will have a door or two, a few windows, and one of those new fancy “roof” things everyone is talking about.

However, she will have to make a lot of assumptions. She will probably put in a remarkably average number of bathrooms, and a bedroom for each of your 2.4 children.

If you’re lucky, the architect will be able to look at your current home and make a whole new set of assumptions based on that.

The architect will make your house, which will have your purple carpet and cherry accents, but the rest of the home will feel wrong. It may feel like it was designed for someone else.

Sure, your furniture may be in it, there may even be pictures of your dog on the wall, but it won’t feel like a home.

This scenario happens all the time when designing and building websites. Clients will often fixate on the aesthetics of the new site (fonts, the exact positioning of elements on pages, and ooooh, is that the exact shade of midnight blue I asked for?), that they will often overlook the most import part of the site – the content.

Why Content First?

Content should drive design decisions. If you own a business where customer testimonials are your biggest asset, the design of the homepage and interior pages of the site should feature those testimonials.

If your website is going to be a library of text-heavy articles about the proper way to rake leaves, then your homepage will look and behave drastically different than a website of an equine photographer.

Much like bathrooms and bedrooms and garages, each content type on your new website demands consideration. A page with your contact information will contain different content than that of a staff profile, for example. You could make both of these pages right in the text editor of the website, but wouldn’t it be great if you had a place specifically designed for that type of content?

The content doesn’t need to be complete to the last word. It should, however, be able to give the developer a sense of the complete content package, and allow those design considerations to be made without any assumptions.

After all this, the aesthetics of the website almost take care of themselves. The aesthetics work to enhance and augment the content, without drawing attention to themselves. I want the defining characteristic of the website to be useful—not pretty.  

“Content precedes design. Design in the absence of content is not design, it’s decoration.”
Jeffrey Zeldman