Which Comes First, Content or Design?


Web design has it’s own version of the chicken/egg conundrum. Which comes first, the content or the design? The truth is that great websites are not born of stunning visuals alone. They are the result of much planning and strategy, done long before a single pixel is drawn. And where does all of that start? With the content. No matter how talented a designer or how beautiful the interface they create, a website without meaningful content is doomed to fail its users.

At Chronos we like to kick off each web project with a Discovery Phase to get a big picture view of a client’s goals and establish the foundation needed for short and long-term success. Through a series of stakeholder interviews, as well as a thorough assessment of a client’s current online presence, we establish the following items:


Stakeholder Expectations

Stakeholders are more than just the people at the top footing the bill for a new website. They are the team members that use the website as a sales tool. The customers who rely on it as a means to find information and get in touch. The potential employees searching for jobs and trying to feel out a company’s personality.

We interview a wide spectrum of people who will interact with a website in order to establish what tasks it will need to accomplish. These, in turn, help determine what the site will ultimately look like. For instance, why do people come to the website and what do you want them to do when they arrive? What kind of messaging will be used? What items on the current site (if they have one) are lacking or could be improved? What is working well and shouldn’t be touched?

We start off with a set list of questions such as these, but very rarely do we get through all of them with each stakeholder. Many times the person we’re interviewing will bring up something that we hadn’t thought of and the conversation veers off in an entirely new direction. It’s amazing the range of responses generated by these interviews. And oftentimes they point at crafting the site in a way that wasn’t immediately obvious before, either to us or to the client.


Content Strategy

It’s important to clarify that when we speak of content we don’t just mean written copy. Website content may include photos, videos, resource libraries, blog entries, portfolio galleries – the list goes on and on. Knowing which of these will be included in a website goes a long way in helping to establish a meaningful and functional design.

A great first step is to perform a content analysis, which involves cataloging the content currently available for a site and evaluating its usefulness to the audience. Analytics tools typically used for Search Engine Optimization (SEO) can reveal user flows and content utilization patterns that sometimes surprise, and always inform. The combination of statistical analysis, customer and stakeholder interviews and a thorough indexing of current content helps refine the content focus. Web users have a notoriously short attention span and the last thing they want to do is wade through a mountain of outdated or cumbersome content. On the other hand, an analysis may reveal that site content is lacking. Then decisions need to be made about what content will be generated, by whom, and when.

It’s tempting for clients to say “Let’s just get the site designed and we’ll worry about content later.” But at a bare minimum, some parameters need to be established for any content that will be included in a website.

 

“Content precedes design…Nothing is sadder than a beautiful design that works great with lorem ipsum but doesn’t actually support the real content.”
~Jeffrey Zeldman, founder of Happy Cog Studios and Co-founder of An Event Apart


Functionality and Scalability

Once we’ve established a website’s goals and content strategy, the next step is to get down to the nitty gritty details of how it will be built and maintained. This is the time to decide if the site will be straightforward and utilitarian, a dazzling display of interactive bells and whistles, or something in between.

Budget obviously plays a big role in determining this, but there are other things to consider as well. Will the client be updating the site themselves and need a CMS put in place? Is there a certain platform or code base the site needs to be built on? Does the site need to integrate with any third party platforms? Are there any widgets or other areas of special functionality that need to be built?

Beyond those details, we also need to make sure that the website will be scalable. A website is a considerable investment of time, money, and resources. It is important that it is structured to grow with the client rather than forcing them to start over from scratch when it comes time to expand or update.


Which All Leads To…

Art direction is what most people think of when they hear the word ‘design’ - the colors, images, layouts and fonts that make up the visual structure of a website. In truth, it is the final stage of design, where we lay the skin over the foundation established by the Discovery Phase. The result is a beautiful, successful website that is not mere brand decoration, but a powerful interactive tool and experience.

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Jamie Alden

Art Director

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