Francis Barbero

Content Driven Design

Content driven design could just as well be called content-first design. It’s a way of making a website and it places emphasis on planning and writing the content before beginning the creative design phase.

At the Starfish web agency in the Philippines, content planning has long been a big part of our planning process.

Why content driven design important?

Everyone wants great content but it’s usually the last thing to be tackled in a web development project. Normally, you make the website first, filling it with dummy or draft text and then afterwards, when your designer has long gone, you give proper consideration to the message – using the Content Management System to refine the content.
The content driven design process attempts to address the problems this causes by making sure the content is given proper consideration before and during the design process. The content coming first, driving the design.

What is a content driven website?

Quite confusingly, and different to content driven design, a content driven website is a website that’s mainly about good, interesting, valuable, engaging content, that is to say, the value of the website is in the information it gives to its users rather than about functionality, or pretty graphics, marketing news or sensationalist news.
It doesn’t mean it was built using a content driven design process. Also a content driven design process doesn’t necessarily have to build a content driven website.

Problems Content Driven Design tries to solve

Irrelevant marketing speak and boastful text. A lot of websites you read say things like “performance driven excellence”, “our staff are pure genius” or “award-winning work”. This stuff is all sparkle and no substance and comes about because you don’t know what to say or copying the guy next door or trying to emulate famous consumer brands who don’t have to work as hard. See marketing driven design for a better approach to marketing.

Empty Sections within the website

You overestimate what you can write about, the designer leaves a big box of “lorem ipsum”, when you go to write, you can barely muster three sentences. Happens a lot in news sections, blogs, about us, our history, about our founder, etc.

Incoherent website

You have a mess of pictures and text that don’t quite make sense. You have images that are grainy because the space for the images was chosen beforehand. This can happen if you choose a template before working on the content. See template driven design

Unfinished website

If you leave the hardest bit to last. If you launch your website with subpar content in the hope that you will then rewrite the content once you have free time, you’ll never get round to doing it. At least not in the next four years. Talking from experience here.

Unsatisfied customers

The website doesn’t help the viewer on their quest to seek knowledge but does a good job of filling their mind with a blank zen-like consciousness, just before they click on the back button and continue their quest without you.

When is a content driven design process appropriate?

Here are some signs that you should be thinking about using this methodology, with Starfish.

  • You already have a website with great content and you just want a redesign
  • You have an established business and have lots to say.
  • You offer professional services and there is a lot of knowledge to convey.
  • You are making a corporate website and there is a lot of content to put together
  • Any website whose main purpose is to convey information.

When is a content driven design process not needed?

It’s always good to think about the content is some form but in a lot of cases, it’s not the main thing that can drive the web development process.

In these instances, it may not be appropriate:

  • When your business is more about visual, emotional or creative impact
  • When your business is simple like a coffee shop and there isn’t much to say.
  • When you are building a web application or e-commerce website.
  • When you are taking are working with a marketing agency who is driving a brand forward through creative means:

Creative Driven Design

Situations when a content driven approach cannot be used
More often than not, we do not use a pure content-driven strategy because of many practical reasons.

  • When there are serious timeline constrictions (consider template approach)
  • When there are budget constrictions (read below about affordability)
  • When visuals are hard to come by (consider a creative approach)
  • When the client has a clear vision of the design and want to start with that.
  • Inability to speak with key people within business.
  • It’s a new business and no one is sure about anything
  • No one has time to write.
  • When you’ve engages a freelance designer.

In this case, we don’t abandon total, we do what we can and either do content-psuedo copy for the client. Read about copywriting here

In these situations, you can use one of our other techniques and use content driven techniques a little bit.

How affordable is content driven design?

Content has to come from somewhere and its either going to cost you your time or someone else their time. It is an illusion that doing the content after you’ve launched the website works out cheaper, unless you take into account the quality of the website, in which case you’ve just gotten yourself a cheap website.

The best way to look at this is: once you have good content, it will be quicker and easier for the designer to do their job and you won’t be designing a website you don’t have content for. In this regard, it may work out to be more economical.

In an informative website, the images can support the content

Remember, not all websites need to be informative, in a lot of cases, a visually impressive is more desirable.

However, if your website is trying to be great source of information, then the visuals. i.e. the photography, graphic design won’t be the primary focal point. In other words, the user won’t be distracted by the images, since they are there to simply add flavor or set the mood.

If this is the case, images can be abstract, almost boring or not-very relevant to the content. For example, investment companies always seem to have images of cities or financial hubs. Seemingly quite dull, but also no one would say investment websites are badly executed.

In the case of a hospital’s website, photos would need to set a caring tone but don’t necessarily be have to be photo of doctors and nurses and equipment. This being the case, you could probably save time and money the creative design aspect of the website, which can quite a challenge, particularly for professional service or corporate website designs.

The basic methodology to content drive design

The crux of the approach is to not think about the design until you’ve worked out the content as much you possibly can.

As soon as you start imagining pretty visuals, icons, your mind is going to be distracted with these other concerns. Remember: “If you don’t eat your meat, you can’t have any pudding. How can you have any pudding if you don’t eat your meat?”

As soon as you have some idea of your central message, you may then move on to design. You don’t have to get every last content down.

Several approaches to getting content

There are several ways to get the content beforehand. Again, the idea is to work on the copy first, without thinking of the website structure. Before any designing is done, do one of more of these

“Dear User” approach

Firstly, work within a UXD design process, know what your users are curious about, then write as if you were writing to them in order to help them. This approach is suitable for business owners who are writing their own content. Most business owners know a lot about their business, so can talk in depth about their business but need help in translating their knowledge something relevant to the users of the website.
The website need not be “content-driven” per se, but it should attempt to address the needs of the user to some degree.

The interview approach

Get someone who is not so familiar with your business to spend some time talking to people within the company, as if they were going to write a very long article. It’s a great way to dig up hidden facts and know-how.

The plagiarist’s approach

Particularly appropriate if you can’t write or if you don’t know what to say. We’ve had plenty of people copy our text.

Just be careful to use multiple sources, change the words around, use a thesaurus, take out the old names and put in the new. If you’re going to copy, really chop up the phrases because Google will know.

Also make sure you understand what it is you’re copying and it actually makes sense. There is no real harm in copying until you get into the swing of things.

The organized approach (content strategy)

If you’ve got a large amount of content, say because you selling hundreds of products, or because you’re a large multifaceted organization, then you’ll need a very organized approach to getting that content ready for your website.

If you’re not organized, you won’t be efficient, making the whole process needlessly expensive. Not only that, how are you going to keep the content up to date? This is where you’ll need a content strategy. Please read about this Content Service under Content Strategy

When content drives but design is close behind

A great way of making a website is when the content writer leads but the designer responds immediately to the content, changing layouts to suit. This then gives feedback and inspiration to the content writer who can improve the copy or adjust the message to suit.

Why is this a good way? It’s hard to write or design without context. Designers need to context of words and writers like to know how much to write.

Banner ads, is a great example where content can drive but also be influenced by design. At the end, you may be asking yourself which came first.

Advantages of content driven websites for SEO

Great content can drive visits to your website via the search engines. All websites should be optimized for search engines but not all businesses use search engines as a means to drive visitors, traffic and revenue.

This combined strategy works well with professional services that are able to show their in-depth expertise via a content rich website.

If you are planning on driving traffic more traffic through your website and you are using a content driven design strategy, then can combine both activities. For this you’ll need to do a little bit of keyword research so that your content is peppered with those keywords that search engines love. For more information Please look at our Search Engine Optimization services. Advantages of content driven websites for driving business clarity. They say when you know a subject inside out, you’ll be able to communicate

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