Why you need content-first design

You have a content strategy, but do you back it up with content-first design?

Content-first design means making decisions about how to communicate with your audience right from the beginning. It gives the words they’ll read as much priority as the layout and graphics. It doesn’t separate copywriting, but brings the writer into the heart of the UX design processes.

Facebook do this. In a recent post, Content Strategist Natalie Shaw said:

‘We maintain simple, straightforward and human language to talk to our community across all of our products, and to do this we get involved early on in the product design process.’

Content-first design needs the buy-in from the wider digital team and stakeholders. It’s all too easy to leave the content design until the last possible moment. Too often I’ve been brought in as a digital content specialist only after a UX, UI or graphic designer has been working on the project for months. I’ve had to fight to get user-ready content included in wireframes and prototypes, to be included in design meetings and to be there when content decisions are made.

Often this is because writers are seen as a nice-to-have extra when deciding budgets. They’re used for the shortest time possible, if at all.

Yet content-first design can bring in far more revenue than the cost of a copywriter or content designer. Targeted, clear content can transform engagement, generate new users and create a far superior product or service.

Avoid wasting time and resource

Bringing a writer in at the end risks needing to scrap work you’ve done without them. A journey might not work once you look at the precise messaging, or a layout might need changing once the words are defined.

Liam King in his post on content-first design sums up the problem with design before content:

The problem with Lorem Ipsum is it conveniently fills the available space like an expanding gas. Unfortunately, it is inert, meaningless and lacks context, revealing very little about the relationship between the design and the content.

Don’t let worry about the cost of a writer cause you to waste significantly more money producing ineffectual designs.

Answer user needs

Including a content designer at your research and discovery stages means they can get to know your audience and meet their specific needs.

A good content designer will work closely with your researchers to better understand your users and:

  • the language they use e.g. search terms
  • the problems and barriers they face
  • the platforms they use and when
  • what motivates them to take action

With this full understanding they can help build products and services that fulfil a need and add value. They’ll know your audience, so will write content that attracts their attention and gets them to engage.

Speak to your users

Having studied the way your users speak, a content designer will make informed choices on the tone and terminology to use. This might be a departure from your previous strategy and what you’ve assumed will resonate with your audience.

Great examples of this are Hootsuite and Slack. Even though they’re used primarily by business professionals their content isn’t formal but cheeky and playful. Their content designers have understood that even though you’re at work, you still have a sense of humour.

Just a small change in wording can dramatically improve conversions and engagement. While working at the charity Shelter, I used single-word email subject lines to stand out in the inbox and attract attention. Over the campaign content strategies like this saw a 54% year-on-year increase in donations.

I could go into lots of other examples where content decisions informed by data, testing and user needs have transformed engagement.

“The digital products you put on a screen are merely the output, a lot of other thinking goes into that process.” — Leah Buley, UX designer

Make content a central part of that thinking with content-first design. You’ll notice the difference.