Content (Structure) First

“Content First.” If you pay any attention to the voices in the world of web design you’ve heard it time and again. I had the privilege of attending An Event Apart this past year, where I heard Jeffrey Zeldman talk about the importance of content first. As he puts it, “Design without content is just decoration.”

Content first makes a lot of sense. After all, how can you design a page with no content? Using lorem ipsum text? On what would you base your design and layout decisions? Just on what “looks good”? Looks good to whom? Design is about problem solving. Achieving goals. If you’re designing a product page, at the very least, you need to communicate all of the important selling points and details of the product, and make it quick and easy to purchase that item. If you’re working with placeholder content, you can’t effectively design the page.

So content first sounds good. I was excited about it. I thought, “yes, of course, that makes perfect sense. I can’t design anything well without the real content,” but when it comes to practice, how do you do that? Can you really tell your client, “well we really can’t begin designing anything until we have all of the website content written and developed.” In most cases, that’s not practical. So how can you base your design decisions on the content, without doing all of your content creation first?

The answer is content structure first. In Mark Boulton’s article Structure First. Content Always., he makes the case for designing the content structure up front, not necessarily the content itself. You can begin by talking about what your content will look like. If it’s a product page, what all will it include? Probably one or more product images, a short description, a price, possibly a longer, detailed description, highlighted features, possibly customer reviews, a prominent “add to cart” button, and so on. Similarly a news article might consist of a heading, a subhead, publishing information, a deck, the article itself, a pull quote or two, possibly links to related articles, a comments section, and so on. All of the content itself doesn’t have to come first, but the structure of the content does. It sounds simple and obvious, but all good ideas do in hindsight.

In Mark’s article he also defines a broad process that he’s been using to discover and define the content structure. Read it. It’s a short article and well worth the read. Also check out Kristina Halvorson’s book Content Strategy for the Web for invaluable information about whipping your content into shape.

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