2 October 2012
Bas Evers
Bas Evers
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Fresh milk in a beautiful, usable glass

Putting content center stage in user experience design

No matter how beautifully designed and usable the glass, if it contains milk while you asked for orange juice, you won’t be happy. And even if it was milk you asked for, if it’s gone sour you’ll be equally disappointed. By analogy, beautifully crafted digital experiences only become satisfactory when the content is appropriate and useful.

This post belongs to my talk at The Web & Beyond (26 september 2012, Amsterdam).

What’s in a name?

Veteran Donald A. Norman, way back in 1995, defined user experience as “all aspects of the end-user’s interaction with the company, its services, and its products.” Now there’s customer experience, which CXPA chair Bruce Temkin defines as “the perception that customers have of their interactions with an organization.”

Both definitions have ‘interaction’ in common. This interaction is facilitated through content. In my idea, 80 or maybe 90% of the total experience is determined by the content. Whether you’re visiting a company’s website, calling their help desk, emailing with them, using one of their apps, or chatting with a support professional; all of the communication you will find is content.

Which brings us to the role of content in the touchpoint design process.

Design or decoration

Over 4 years ago, web designer Jeffrey Zeldman posted a controversial tweet. He wrote, “Content precedes design. Design in the absence of content is not design, it’s decoration.” I totally agree with the point Jeffrey wants to make. He rephrased it as follows: “You better figure out what you have to ‘say’ before you start pushing pixels around.”

This statement should not be controversial at all. It was, because it came at a time when designers focused on pixels under the wrong assumption that the content was a fixed thing that could be ignored for as long as possible. When designing experiences, it’s time to put the way we communicate with our users in the middle: through content.

Communication goals

So how do we embed content-centered thinking into the design process? Margot Bloomstein provides one way in her must-read book “Content Strategy at Work“. Inspired by traditional marketing communications thinking, she defines a brand’s content strategy in terms of (primary and secondary) communication goals.

I see this as a way to implement Zeldman’s plea to first think about what you want to say. Margot then makes these communication goals the foundational elements that inform visual design, content strategy, editorial strategy, nomenclature, and architecture.

This is all well and good, but still a bit theoretical. Let’s dive into two examples of what this content-first approach delivers.

Powerful content designs

One of my favourite examples of a content design issue is the date stamp. There are many questions to ask when it comes to this simple sounding thing:

  • Do we show a date stamp at the front end or is it metadata only?
  • What is the format (numbers, letters, a combination)?
  • Does the date stamp have a function (for instance in organizing articles chronologically)?
  • Can a user click on a date stamp? What happens?

Flickr allows users to browse photos by date taken, either within a user’s photo stream or even for all photos on the site. This is a very powerful functionality that could only have been designed and developed this way because the content decision to allow for this type of filtering was made early on.

Another example comes from a website that understands content all too well: Amazon. It might sound paradoxical when you want to sell as much as possible, but they understand that people want to read negative reviews. Amazon have made it really easy to find one- and two-star reviews. Jared Spool calls this a content-design decision. And I agree. It shows that Amazon understand content and people’s content needs.

The content determines the experience

Of course, the interaction design and visual design are important aspects of a digital experience. But the content is essential to the total experience. Take this example of a recent redesign.

9292 is Holland’s most popular public transport travel planning service. When I wanted a travel advice to The Web and Beyond conference, I only typed in ‘t-r-o-p’ before the website already understood I meant the Tropenmuseum. That’s cool!

However, whether I’m happy with 9292 will be determined by the accuracy of the travel advice they provide me to this museum (in other words, the content). Typing suggestions are a nifty feature, but they can never be a more important part of my experience with the service than the content they provide.

No pixels without content

Now that I have made the plea for putting content center stage in the touchpoint design process, it’s time for a reality check. Because there is still a lot of work to do. What can we do to make designs that take the content as a starting point?

Here’s one idea. Instead of pushing pixels around and then wondering how the content (if available at all!) will fit in, we should not allow for pixels without content. Let’s agree that a visual design should not contain lorem ipsum filler text. A visualization like that can never communicate the whole concept of the design. The content is too important (and complicated) to be left out.

Accompanying presentation deck (Slideshare)

The Moment for Content (The Web & Beyond 2012, Amsterdam)

About the author

Bas Evers (@everbass) is content strategist at Informaat and fellow initiator of ContentCafé, Dutch networking event around content strategy. He has evangelized content strategy at UXCamp Europe (Berlin), Design by Fire (Utrecht) and The Web and Beyond (Amsterdam).

Content strategy (19)

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