Content Early Design: A Riff on Content First

Workday Design
Apr 21 · 9 min read

By Simone Ehrlich, Content Strategy Manager

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Illustration by Vichai Iamsirithanakorn

Words are cheap. Cheaper than wires; cheaper than mocks. That doesn’t mean words aren’t important, just less expensive to produce as a design asset. So aligning around words has the potential to save time and resources. Enter Content Early, a riff on designing Content First.

Content First, the idea that we can design with words before we ever open a tool like Sketch or Figma, is a hot topic right now, and I’m a huge fan of it. Full stop. Let me repeat — I really love the idea of Content First. However, placing something first implies that something else necessarily comes second. That can put people’s backs up: Why is my area of expertise secondary?

Also, design has a lot of “firsts.” Mobile First, Accessibility First, Machine Learning First — the list goes on. Can a designer really keep everything in mind at once and do it all first?

And what about the projects that have already started? Does saying “first” imply that if the designer didn’t begin with content, then it’s too late to consider the information needs of the user?

For my purposes, I like to talk about Content Early, Often, and Always. We should consider the user’s information needs throughout the design process. Content Early is an invitation to consider those needs at any time. Is earlier better? Yes. Would first be great? Absolutely! However, it’s never too late to start considering those information needs and using them to inform (pun intended) the design.

Language matters, and Content Early feels less prescriptive than Content First. When you’re trying to get folks to try new things, an invitation rather than a prescription seems better. (Unless of course, you’re an MD, and you have the authority to write actual prescriptions.)

Illustration of an engraved invitation with content as the event? The title says content early, often, always
Illustration of an engraved invitation with content as the event? The title says content early, often, always
Illustration by Vichai Iamsirithanakorn

So, What Is Content Early?

It’s a collection of methods to design from scratch (content first) and analyze designs with words (content after you’ve begun designing). We use those methods differently at various points during the design process.

These are the methods we’re playing with right now:

  1. Personality Profile — adapted from Aaron Walter’s Design Persona. A guide that personifies the product and provides the foundation for other design decisions.
  2. Storyframe — Fabricio Teixeira. A narrative that synthesizes what goes on a high-value page.
  3. Vision Story — Simone Ehrlich, inspired by Storyframe A narrative that shows the user’s experience of a product (in the future) and how it makes them feel.
  4. Conversational Design — adapted from Steph Hay’s Content First, and also inspired by Erika Hall. A conversational exchange between the user and the product, which anticipates and addresses what the user is thinking and feeling as they interact with it.
  5. Priority Guide — Drew Clemens. A list of real information, in order of priority to the user, that will appear on a page, plus notes about the related elements and functionality.
  6. Intent Frame — Simone Ehrlich. A wireframe that establishes the layout based on the purpose of each element in it. (There’s no real content at all, just the intention, from the perspective of the designer, of why the element is there.)

Rather than explain each method in detail, as the practitioners above have done eloquently, I’ll tell you instead how we’re using this collection of methods differently, and what benefits we’re seeing at Workday. Stay tuned for the series of in-depth blog posts on each method.

Using Content Early

These methods have the greatest impact when used with a cross-functional group — a designer, researcher, PM, and content strategist. This diversity of perspective, coupled with the lo-fi nature of the methods, means we get to make decisions efficiently, in real time.

Design from Scratch

We start with research and what we know about the user. We use the methods to design from scratch, before moving to visual sketches.

We write the story, the conversation, the intent of each element, and use these to guide the design process. We use words to create a design asset that then translates into more traditional sketches, wireframes, and mocks. This then, is the same as a Content First approach.

Indeed, Content Early includes designing Content First.

Let’s take, for example, a vision story about a user’s experience of the product in the future. We align as a group on who we’re designing for (our character), their needs, and the problem we’re attempting to solve. We review other products and note our likes and dislikes. We plan the story, identifying what we want to highlight about the product, and how it makes the character feel. We write and refine it. Then, based on the story, and what type of feedback we need and from whom, we create any number of other design assets:

  • A Google site where we can put up the story and get feedback
  • A storyboard that breaks the story into panels
  • UI sketches or wires based on elements of the story, to illustrate possible ways the story could come to life in product

By writing the story first, we align on the experience we want to create. That informs the design iterations to come.

Analyze

We also use the methods to analyze an existing design asset. It might be a sketch, a wire, a mock, in any level of fidelity. We write down what the design is “saying” — what story it’s telling, what conversation a user might have with it, what the intent of the design is, or what the order of information is communicating now. We highlight opportunities to evolve the design and change it, so that it better meets the user’s needs as we understand them from research. With these insights, we iterate on the existing design asset or start fresh with a new Content Early asset that we design from scratch.

To use the example of a Vision Story again, we analyze the current product by writing a narrative of one user’s experience of it and how it makes them feel. We do this if we need to gain buy-in for why we need to redesign a product or build a completely new one. In the story, we show the pain points of the current experience or workarounds the character engages in. We write this “downer” story so that we can then contrast it with the more positive vision story in which we address the pain points.

Best Practices for Content Early

The design best practices that make Content Early a success are not unique to content.

Listen

We listen to the team. We find out where the project is at, and meet the team where they are.

That tells us which method or combination of methods to use, as well as whether we’ll be designing from scratch or analyzing.

Include, Include, Include

Just as CE encompasses content Often, Always, we include teams and stakeholders early and often, and always keep their interests in mind.

Including doesn’t mean designing by committee — we’ve done many of these methods with just a Content Strategist and a designer. But the power of Content Early is in the alignment of both team and stakeholders through words. Using language to design provides a unique opportunity for people who don’t think of themselves as “designers” to design.

Create

We create the initial Content Early design asset with a small core group, then review with everyone else.

We’ve found sometimes everybody wants in on the creative action. Have you ever tried to cook a meal with 20 people in the kitchen? It requires more orchestration than it’s worth, and dinner gets served at midnight.

Unless we have a magical group (and we have had such groups), it’s better to create with just a few people so we can move more rapidly and show something for quick feedback in short order. Then everyone feels good about the process, instead of feeling tired and hungry because of the midnight dinner.

Review

We review with stakeholders as soon as we have something to show. While we do ensure that our artifact captures the essence of what we want to communicate (and get rid of any typos that might distract), we don’t try to make it perfect. The point of Content Early is lo-fi.

We make that clear when we introduce the Content Early method (usually with a brief 5 minute deck). We then take the stakeholders through the process we used to create the content early artifact and explain that what they’re about to see is a jumping off point, an invitation to co-create. We let them know that we want to iterate with their feedback. Then we dive into the artifact, emphasizing that the words are not final copy intended to appear in the product.

The reactions we get in reviews are invariably positive. Stakeholders immediately understand what we are trying to communicate and provide targeted feedback that helps to guide the team better.

Iterate

We iterate with stakeholder feedback, sometimes real time. More often, we take notes or add comments, and then iterate offline. We have also shared the artifacts with stakeholders, and asked them to make comments right in the Google doc or Figma file.

Validate

Iterating on stakeholder feedback is different from iterating based on validation with end users. We’re just beginning to validate content early assets with end users. In one example, we shared a vision story with a customer advisory group. The PM read the story to the group while showing some lo-fi visuals in a slide deck. He also handed out printouts of the story so that participants could provide written feedback.

We’ve found that a major benefit of validating designs using a Content Early asset is that it is so lo-fi that it promotes focus. It encourages participants to attend to what you’re really looking for feedback on, without getting distracted by stroke weight, placeholder images, text that’s not final — whatever you usually need to tell them to ignore. And once we’ve validated, we can choose to iterate with words or continue with the design process.

Onward with the Design Process

Content Early design assets are a springboard to visual and spatial means of designing — sketches, wires, and mocks. Often designers intuitively know how they want to manifest different parts of a Content Early asset, because it’s a handy guide.

But in some cases, we talk through or annotate the Content Early artifact and indicate how it translates to a wireframe. Doing this as a group means that PM knows what the wire will contain. It makes each iteration more purposeful.

Illustration of a person hands working on a laptop, with a coffee cup and notebook next to them.
Illustration of a person hands working on a laptop, with a coffee cup and notebook next to them.
Illustration by Vichai Iamsirithanakorn

The Wrap Up

Content Early is a little like drinking coffee — it can provide that much needed jolt of awareness! And best of all, you can do it anytime during the day.

The single greatest signal to us right now that Content Early is working for teams is the demand. We have repeat customers in the form of teams that come back to us again asking for more content strategy, more Content Early. We have new teams that hear how it has helped other teams and want to try it out. Stakeholders are engaging with us and providing positive feedback on the process.

Most importantly, considering Content Early, Often, and Always, helps us to create products that users connect with, emotionally. Products that are:

  • Infused with the personality we deliberately create
  • Designed to follow a cohesive narrative that reflects the user’s journey
  • Constructed with an IA that serves the user’s mental model
  • Crafted according to how the user perceives the product and feels about it

At Workday, we use Content Early to complement (not replace) existing practices and add to the designers’ toolbox. We’re evolving methods that work for our teams. I say evolving, because we’re not using the methods exactly the same way each time. We’re modifying them for the needs of the product and the teams designing and building it.

It’s an exciting time to be in content strategy. It’s more exciting because I work at a company that’s willing to embrace new methods and evolve them. Workday Design has the kind of culture that promotes this.

Stay tuned for more on Content Early and the various methods. And if you’re bringing content into the design process similarly or in other ways, please reach out. I’d love to hear how it’s going!

Workday Design

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