Frantimones sitting around a desk

Content loves design, and here’s why you should love it back

Content is the conversation and interaction people have with your brand or product - the very reason they’re on your site. And if the content is the very reason people are on your site, why is it often the last thing to come into the picture when designing products and services, sites and apps?

“Content first”, “content is king” and “content is the most important thing on your website”. Do these sound familiar? Most of us have heard these phrases a thousand times. While brands, and designers, tend to focus on images and visual stimuli, it won’t take away the fact that what you’re saying and how you say it plays an important role in getting your message across. Still, how many of us can honestly say that we’re designing content first?

Is there even such a concept as “content first”, especially in the way that many of us are using the phrase? Maybe we’ve never designed and developed content first – it’s just a sentence that we’ve grown into. So, if “content first” is not a realistic approach, how should it be done then?

Let’s start with the way we shouldn’t be doing it. Still quite often one runs into a situation where the design, UX, visuals, maybe even code, are already ready when we start to figure out how to put that content in those boxes that now read LOREM IPSUM. It might be a good design, but if it’s done with lorem ipsum it usually needs some tweaks and redesigning when the content comes into the picture. And that’s just unnecessary work and a waste of resources. And it can be avoided if the content is a substantive part of the design process from the beginning.

Making a case for a content designer

The best way to explain why you and your business need content designers and what they do is to go through the design process from the point of view of content people. The content designer starts with the same things as any designer: understanding the needs of users (humans, that is) as well as the business and their objectives.

But adding to that, they also need to understand the whole ecosystem. The good thing about having a content designer on board from the beginning is that they look at the end-to-end customer journeys. They understand the whole ecosystem of content and communication.

Content designers are - and should be - skilled researchers. Having a background in fields like communications and editing has taught content people to be great at research. To be able to write about something and make complex things easy requires a lot of background research. The more they know, the better the quality of their work, always. Knowing the subject like the back of your hand results in content that is dynamic, effective and top-notch from the get-go.

We’re used to interviewing people and most of all, listening to them: what kind of terms or language are they using? If they are talking about banking, for example, what are they saying? Are they going to buy a house or take a loan? Do they talk about using lifts or elevators? Content people will look at projects from a unique angle, and this, in turn, may result in a unique product or service.

Customer journeys, not just user journeys

Content designers understand the whole environment the product exists in. They are not just talking about the things people need to get done when using your product, but also how they will find your product if they have the kind of problem that your product can help with. So how do they find it? What makes them return? How will they find out about new features, for example? These are the questions that content designers ask.

The world is full of content strategists who focus on the marketing side of things, and that’s great. But if you don’t have great content from the beginning, then what is there to market? The best approach is to simply do your homework with the content right from the start.

Labeling, understanding and organizing information

Information is content. Content designers will understand your objectives, audit your content, decide what should be kept in order to address your user and business needs, and they are probably the best people to help you to figure out how to structure it.

They will also understand what kind of content is needed in which touchpoints of the customer journey so they can create the correct messages and place them where they work best. Getting the message right for each use case requires knowledge of what you’re trying to convey, to whom, on what platform, and how you’re supposed to do it – and that’s only the tip of the iceberg.

Your tone of voice

What makes you unique? It’s your tone of voice. Most people have no problem whatsoever identifying their favorite bloggers or podcasters just by reading or hearing a couple of sentences from them. But when it comes to businesses it becomes quite hard. There’s just a few of them that you can really identify easily.

Despite the importance of tone, advice about it tends to be vague: “Be consistent. Be authentic. Be unique.” What does it mean? Well, this is something that I could dive deep into. But I’ll give you a hint: a content designer is a trained professional who can get this right for you.

Conversations are becoming a big part of products and services - and brand, actually. In the near future, you will have to be able to get your message across with just voice or conversation. How do you do that if not with the help of people who write and understand those conversations?

Last but not least: prototyping and testing

Do you test with Lorem ipsum? If you do, maybe you should think twice. While we love to test the content that we’ve produced and prototype, it is crucial to use actual real content in order to get real results.

You wouldn’t do an A/B -test without real content. So, I sometimes have to wonder what the point is in testing prototypes with no content. Luckily, I'm starting to see a slow change in that.

Designing with content

This all comes down to the initial thought of content first. That statement is a kind of old artefact that has been left behind since the waterfall model of software development that just keeps resurfacing time and time again.

Although you should have some kind of idea what you want to say and what the things that your audience needs are, “content first” gives you the wrong idea that you should somehow have all the content ready before starting the UX, visual, or UI design. We all should know by now that this is not the way!

You shouldn’t design and develop content first - you should be designing and developing with the content. In close cooperation. In that way iterations and tweaks are easy to do, prototyping and testing are efficient, and we’ll have the best possible result. Involving content designers in the process from the beginning is beneficial for everyone – and your business ­– in the long run.

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For further reading: we have great experience of a content designer being part of an agile team, for example at Finnair. I’m more than happy to discuss the topic further at laura.hinkkanen@frantic.com.