your content broke my design: the CMS question

It all started innocently enough–we were standing around our cubicles talking amongst ourselves. Being web nerds, the conversation centered not around football scores or the latest ABC late- night reruns, but around web structure, the definition of content and usability.

“If we could only have Kristina Halvorson on our team” my co-worker, Mr Skittles pined wistfully, “we would be amazing.”

“Who is that?” I asked. “Does she work here?”

The conversation stopped and heads turned. Someone let out a snicker.

“Kristina Halverson is only the most brilliant content strategist out there”  Mr Skittles sniffed. “She has worked for some of the biggest names in the industry when it comes ot content strategy.”

Strike one for ignorance. But I began to mull over this concept of content strategy, I realized its been something I’ve largely ignored and little understood. Currently, my contributions to our web team are mainly aesthetic–I can open up photoshop therefore I was nominated to be the designer. I dress up pages, move around boxes and write clever h1 titles. But until now, I viewed content as a necessary evil, something that often got in the way of the visual synergy I was trying to create. If it didn’t fit, it didn’t make the page. 

But no one ever whispered the words “visual aesthetics” with solemn reverence or had their eyes glaze over in wonder when I unveiled the latest wireframes (well, their eyes may have glazed over but it certainly wasn’t from wonder).

What was the allure? Determined to remedy my ignorance,  off I trundled to Barnes and Noble with my laptop in hand.  As I dipped my toe in the world of content strategy (as in braintraffic.com and Ginny Redish’s “Letting Go of the Words”), I began to understand a defined strategy can radically improve the way an organization plans for, creates, delivers and governs content (the last 13 words were taken directly from Kristina Halvorson…hey, she gets paid a lot more than me think of such great phrases, so I’ll let her words do). Design might draw audiences in, but content is what keeps  them coming back. So doesn’t content deserve more strategic consideration beyond the reactive, last-minute, wild west  content we usually hapharzardly throw on our website? And why should content be forced to fit a design?

As designers, we need to do better. We need to really be information architects first, designers second.  Oftentimes, we leave content considerations for the very end, which results in a mad scramble and at that point it’s too late. The wheels come off on the whole project. Who wants to be towed across the finish line?  In the end everyone loses-the end-user included. Content shouldn’t break our designs.

Content deliciousness may be outside a designer’s realm of control–we may not be able to dictate the recipe for content success. But if we are to be taken seriously, we should become more aware of content strategy. The platter upon which its served can be made prettier, but nothing is more frusterating than to have created the perfect, goal-driven, user-focused aestetically pleasing website and have the content make it look like crap.

Why does this happen? Because usually, the designer doesn’t know what kind and how much content the design needs to support. So we guess. Or, the audience owner gives some vague, non-commital answer like “we’ll plug it in once you’re done.” This leads to “ohhs” and “ahhs” when the design is presented but hisses and moans when the content is plugged in. So two not-so-great solutions are presented:

  • launch the site with crappy-looking content that makes the whole site look stupid
  • or the launch is delayed to re-work the design or re-work the content to fit the design

This doesn’t have to happen. Designers who aren’t simultanesouly content creators (which really, most of us aren’t) need to work hand in hand with content creators from the very beginning. Designers need to ask the important questions, plan for variables and account for them in our wireframes and mockups. The audience owner needs to know their site and the content they want to display that would best suit the user.  They also need  to sign-off on every wireframe, information archetetcure and page outline.  

The moral of the story is that if it’s broke, fix it. Designers aren’t immune to bad processes. In fact, we are often victims of it.  Johnathan Kahn of the blog Lucid Plot made a great point:

“If your lack of content strategy is hurting the user experience, it’s time to throw out the design process and start over.”

I guess it’s back to the drawing board for me.

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