A title card which says, "Should You Take A Content First Approach To Web Design?"

When designing for websites and other printed or formatted media, content creation can become something of a chicken and egg problem. Designers want to see the content and writers want to see the wireframe.

A simple Google search will produce tons of articles telling you that a content-first approach is the “accepted” way to website design.

But the truth isn’t that simple. Research shows that design matters far more to customers than the content on the page, especially at first glance. Businesses can’t just pour content onto the page, without regard for layout or format, and expect to keep readers engaged.

Today, we’re going to take a closer look at the problems with a content-first approach to web page design and why it might be time to reevaluate the starting point when it comes to content-design workflows.

Why the Content-First Approach Doesn’t Actually Work 

Here’s a conversation that I’ve had with a number of clients during my time as a copywriter:  The client asks if I can write the content for their new homepage or landing page.  I say that it’s doable and ask what they’re trying to accomplish. 

They give me the details for what they want — a home page, a landing page, a sales brochure, etc. — and they tell me what the ultimate goal of the deliverable should be.  Usually, it’s conversion and/or informational.

Then I ask if they have some idea of what the deliverable is going to look like or how they’re going to display the data.  The answer is almost always:

“We thought you’d write the content and then we’ll figure out how to put it on the page.”

And my response is always the same:

“Okay, but it takes longer to reach the final iteration, and it’s more expensive to do it that way.”

Which is true, and there are a couple of reasons for that.  The first is that the content has to fit the space that the designer creates, and the designer is restricted by the size of the browser and current principles behind responsive design.

In short, the designer has to follow rules and build pages in a specific way in order to create a look and feel that is both effective and on-brand.  Using a design-first approach, those restrictions would then trickle down to the writer, who would have a better understanding of the space available for content.

Using the content-first pushes the copywriter into the role of quasi-designer, where they have to create content based on a wireframe that doesn’t yet exist.  That content is then used to dictate elements of the design as the wireframe is built. 

Once the design is completed, the copywriter needs to revise the text based on the designer’s layout, then resubmit.  After that, the designer updates everything and makes changes.  The entire process repeats until the deliverable is complete.

So, what’s the problem?

The Problem with the Content-First Approach

The central problem with a content-first approach comes down to the roles and responsibilities of the individuals creating your content.

With a content-first design, it’s easy to allow content creators to set the guidelines for your designer.  The problem here is that your content will often be developed by individuals who have no real understanding of the guidelines that a developer should use when building a web page or designing a brochure.

A content writer may not understand how SEO standards like page speed and scripting factor into search result rankings.  A marketer may be blind to the fact that using an unoptimized video in the hero section can cause trouble on a mobile device.

While you can find writers, marketers, and strategists who understand those things (we do exist!), it may not be part of the traditional skill set that they need to do their job.  By asking them to create content first, you’re asking them to step outside their role and generate content for an imagined construct.  The problem here is that those individuals don’t understand the rules of engagement.

And it actually gets worse.

Data shows that design and layout have far more influence over customer decisions than any text on the page.  One study found that 7 in 10 consumers say that the content “must display well on the device” or a brand risks losing its audience.

By pushing your writers and content designers into a role outside of their area of expertise, you’re laying a heavier burden on the developer or designer — who now needs to deal with the traditional guidelines on top of trying to make sense of everything that the content team came up with.

In order to make it fit, the designer may also need to make changes.  But to do so, the designer will need to step out of the bound of their defined role without the skill or the training to succeed.  When a conflict arises, the designer may not know what text to trim, or what components she can to do away with while staying consistent with your brand story.

By taking a content-first approach, you’re essentially asking every member of your team to step outside of their own expertise in order to create your deliverable.  Writers and marketers end up functioning as quasi-designers while developers and designers step in to serve as content editors by attempting to trim, revise, and potentially rewrite the content.

This approach introduces errors into your production process and necessitates revisions that can run up the final cost of the deliverable as the project iterates its way to completion.

The Problem With the Design-First Approach

In case you’re wondering, a design-first approach doesn’t magically eliminate any and all kinks in the production process.  However, the problems that you need to solve for the design team actually need to happen farther upstream.

Here’s why.

Most web designers are interested in how your content displays on the page. Many are looking for opportunities to create clean and simple layouts while using design elements (fonts, colors, etc.) that work well together.  They’re also looking at website trends and figuring out what makes sense in the space.

If your designer has some marketing experience, they might also be interested in how your brand represents your story.  Good designers know that content and design have to work together in order to tell a compelling story and create a strong connection with the customer.

But, for better or worse, web designers play an outsized role in the success of that brand or story.  In one study regarding web credibility, nearly 75% of respondents reported making credibility judgments based on content presentation rather than other factors.

In order for a web designer to do that, they need to understand the story that you’re trying to tell.  They need to grasp the brand strategy, the big-picture concepts, and the fundamental direction that you want to go with a page.

But all of that shouldn’t happen during content creation.  It should take place in the planning stages that take place at a much higher level.

How To Design Quality Content and Keep Everybody Happy

If the designer needs better clarity, and the content team needs the design, then someone needs to step up and kick off the entire process!

At first, this might sound like it brings us back to a content-first approach to production, but that’s not entirely accurate.

The big-picture concepts and ideas don’t emerge from content production.  They come out of strategy meetings and planning sessions that happen farther upstream from both content and design processes.  This is where marketing directors, content strategists, and other key members of your content team should be working to understand the user journey you’re offering to customers.

Once that journey is road mapped and the broad strokes are outlined, designers can build content using placeholder text and images until they reach a design that makes sense.  Then the rest of the content team can swoop in to fill those gaps.  
In terms of planning and implementation, this approach is far more logical.  Here’s a breakdown of the steps that you should be considering when trying to streamline your content workflow:

01. Determine Your Target Audience

Whether you’re just starting out with your business or trying to determine the broad strokes of a new content campaign, figuring out your target audience is the most important part of the journey.

It can’t be an afterthought.

Taking the time to figure out what your audience is looking for both on your web page and in your content production is critical to creating a user-friendly journey that can grow your brand.  

If you just start creating a website or start writing a blog post, you’ll end up sinking a bunch of money into an initiative that constantly needs to be revised, tweaked, and restructured.  

Charging into website construction without completing this step is a great way to invest a ton of capital into a homepage that simply doesn’t attract the type of customer you want.

If at all possible, get this right the first time.

02. Figure Out the User Flow

After you know who will show up to your website, you’ll need to determine the user flow.  How your audience moves through your content will have a major impact on what content you present to them and in what order.

There are some basic pages that you should have, especially if you’re selling a product or a service.  Customers expect to find contact information, as well as details about products and services.  Research shows that 47% of customers look for details about your product offering as soon as they arrive on your website and about half leave if they can’t find contact information.

Aside from preparing basic details, there are a few ways to figure out how users will navigate your website.  Trial and error typically play some role in this.  Some plugins and services can show you how users navigate on your site.  Other tools, like Google Analytics, can give you a pipeline view of your navigation and falloff.

Before you start designing your website, you won’t have a clear view of how users reach different content types, but you should have an educated guess based on what you think will happen.

03. Outline the Top Highlights

Based on data, research, and a good idea of what you want to offer to customers, content creators can jump at this stage and help you get your top highlights together.

While a content-first approach can force team members out of their specialized areas, your content teams can work on the broad-stroke outlines of your content strategy.  Working collectively, creatives can nail down what pages need to be created and generate a rough outline of the content that should be on the page.

At this stage, we’re still miles away from completed or finalized content — and with good reason!  Giving your designers a rough idea of what’s going to be on the page and where to expect large blocks of content allows them to create mockups and wireframes without worrying about content that can’t be changed.

04. Design Using Proto-Content

In layman’s terms, proto-content is the draft version of your final content.  It’s not the polished, final message.  It’s more of a rough draft — closer to the finished product than the lorem ipsum placeholder text, but still miles from the finish line.

The idea here is that proto-content allows you to fill the page with a semi-targeted message and see what breaks inside the design.  If the headers are too long or the paragraphs push the page down, everyone still has a chance to revise and adjust.

With a content-first approach, this isn’t feasible because the content is already completed.  The designer has to make it work . . . and since 38% of customers say they’ll stop engaging if the content is unattractive in its layout or imagery, you’re taking a big risk by forcing the designer to pack in the content rather than having the team make adjustments to suit your brand aesthetic.

05. Upgrade Your Drafted Content

Once the mockups and the wireframes are done, it’s time to bring in the full content team and create great content. 

This is where your graphic designers, copywriters, and other brand creatives really start to take over the project and deliver high-quality content that converts.  The individuals in this content team can tell your brand story and help you win new business by working together to build content that fits inside the guardrails set up by the design work.

At this stage, we’re well into the design-first approach to content production.  The heavy lifting regarding content strategy and UX design should already be done by now.

As the project comes together, you’ll need to keep your web designers and developers on standby for minor tweaks and changes as the real content goes live.

06. Generate Content for Templated Pages

After the designs are finalized and the complex pages are finished, the next step for content production is to create page templates that are on-brand and easy to implement.

These are pages like blog post layouts and landing page designs that are easily replicated and contain specific guidelines for content.

With blog posts, the overall design structure of the page is built around placing great content front and center.  In this scenario, all the design has to do is get out of the way so that the content can take the spotlight.  

Campaign-related landing pages can be replicated easily because users in segmented campaigns may not see more than one landing page at a time.  With two or three basic layouts, you could keep things looking fresh by simply rotating the page design through your audience.

But I Have a Small Team!  How Does This Work For Me?

If you’re lacking one (or several) of the main components for content creation, you’ll either need to acquire them or fill in the gaps yourself.

With enough savvy and know-how, you could switch hats between designer, illustrator, and copywriter until you come up with a website that you like.  Realistically, though, you’ll probably need help.  

If you’ve hired individuals with some cross-training, they may be able to fulfill multiple roles.  I act as a content strategist, UX writer, copywriter, and SEO specialist for several of my clients.  A designer may be able to double as an illustrator since the disciplines are adjacent to one another.

Where possible, give your team an opportunity to step into roles at different stages of the process.  See how they perform.  If it’s not a good fit, bringing on a freelancer might be the best solution.

Why Your Content-Design Workflow Matters

To put it in simple terms, your content-design workflow matters for three reasons:  Time, money, and the number of revisions to completion.

From the perspective of time and money, throwing more of either at a project doesn’t necessarily improve the outcome if resources are unwisely spent.  If you’re pinching pennies or trying to be conservative in your marketing, having a clear and straightforward workflow around content and design can save you a ton of money.

Time is also another factor, based on your content strategy.  If your workflow is unclear you could end up spending more time and money on revisions just to reach a final deliverable.  Having this workflow locked down (or working with someone who does) can help you reach the final product more quickly.

No business has infinite amounts of time or money, but most projects have a set budget and nobody — internal or external — wants to blow that budget by spinning their wheels because they didn’t have a firm handle on the content-design workflow.

Depending on how you approach content and design, you’re likely to encounter some problems.  It’s up to you to determine the best approach, based on your personal preferences and the strength of your team.

Marc "Scott" Summers | © 2020