Every digital experience project is a content project, full stop.
Why? Because useful websites aren’t just shelves. They’re structure and imagery, language and interactions — and two of those four things involve content. Without content, a site is an empty shell.
So because every digital experience project is a content project, content deserves time and energy, and diligence. It deserves strategic thought and research. And it deserves focus from the beginning of the project to the end. The problem is, it doesn't always get that. And for some reason still, in 2023, we often encounter projects in which content isn't accounted for in the initial planning phases at all.
This blows my mind.
The hard stuff — the stuff you need an “expert” for in people's minds — is apparently the development and design of a website. People think, “Ah, writing, anybody can do that.” And that may be true — my 10-year-old might be able to write a website, but it's not gonna be a very good website. So you are absolutely going to want to give it thought and that takes diligence and research.
Content also demands a job title with focus on the right things. In our world, there have been a million job titles for people who write words for websites. I've probably held every single one of them. Copywriter, content strategist, and content creator. More recently, UX writer is popular. But now we have this newer title — content designer — which I think is exactly the right title for the work. The idea of content design and the role of content designer puts content right where it should be — in the same breath as the “other” kind of design. And that leads to the second foundational thought behind content design:
Content is design on the web.
Finally, before we even talk about what this is, we need to acknowledge that, because content is so important, it requires a process and a philosophy behind it. To create content that resonates, that solves a user’s problem, we don’t guess. We have a point of view and we follow a set of steps to getting it right.
And that is where the idea of content design as a discipline comes from.
Now that that’s out of the way, let’s dig into:
1) What is content design?
2) How do you do content design?
3) What is the content design process?
4) What part of the design process should content design be considered?
5) Killer examples of content design done right
What is content design?
Content design is answering a user's needs in the best way for a user to consume the thing you’re presenting. Whether that’s a piece of information, a location, a nugget of truth, or an interesting thing that might make them cry or laugh or want to buy something. And this definition is my paraphrase from a great book called Content Design, written by a woman named Sarah Winters who works for Content Design London.
Throughout the book, she says all the quiet parts out loud for a lot of us that have been working in content for a long time.
So, back to that definition: Content design is something that answers a user’s needs in the best way the user needs to consume it. If you break it down, it says a couple of important things about digital experiences.
First, it says that when digital experiences are done well, they're created for users. Not for businesses, not for sales teams, not for the vanity of the CEO — for users. Websites and apps, digital experiences are made to solve problems for real people.
Secondly, it acknowledges that users are different from one another and need different things. Determining how to give them what they need isn't a simple thing. It isn't just a, “Hey, we'll fill that in later,” kind of proposition. You need to start with what they need, not backfill it. That is, I think, the biggest takeaway from the idea of content design: You start with the user and you stay with them, catering to their needs, the entire time. Because of that responsibility, the person that is in charge of content design isn't just writing words, they become an advocate for the user. The voice of the user. And when done right, again, they are solving problems for the user in the way that they need through research, not just guessing.
How do you do content design effectively?
AtEdgar Allan, we view content design in a layered way. We don't often work on purely informative sites, like a government site, so our work has a little more nuance than just giving people facts. Most of what we do serves a different god. Our work serves the god of marketing. It serves the god of persuasion, storytelling, and sales. All of the foundational elements of content design work for that too, because there's still an audience, and there's still a need. Sometimes the need is intermingled with a business need; the business needs to sell something. It needs to convey a message. It needs somebody to fall in love with it, but it doesn't mean that you can forget about the need of the audience on the other end of that.
Given that, we content design as intrinsically connected with brand.
Content design is a great way, honestly, to make sure that the good work that brand strategy does, addressing audience needs, wants, desires, and emotional triggers, is conveyed all the way through to the execution of the website.
My experience as a brand strategist is that we tend to work on the leading edge of a project; before anything else gets done. We'll spend months and months interviewing customers. Then we’ll present this great story and strategy that’s really well thought out. But then often, in my experience, it will get handed off either to an internal team or to another agency to create things with it, and a lot of the insight and meat of it would get lost in translation or simply left on the table.
So content design, especially when we engage in a brand-to-build project at Edgar Allen, is a link between brand intent and execution. It takes the intent of brand, build from a place of audience understanding, and ensures that is carried through when decisions on what, how, and where information is presented on a website are made. Connectedly, we use the content designer as a consistent voice from brand through build to be the missing link between the two halves of brand and build.
Content design is also a natural partner of a tool like Webflow because Webflow democratizes web development and makes it a lot easier for anyone, technical or not, to get in and make a professional site without a lot of coding expertise. So that gives teams a lot of control over their marketing layer, and an opportunity to not just know a whole lot about your audience’s needs but do something with that information over time. With a no and low-code tool like Webflow, you can evolve, move and shift with user needs. You can ask again and again, “What do you need to solve for?” and then be able to solve it or change things very easily.
What is the content design process?
Step 1: The Content Discovery Workshop
One of the things that we do to ensure that we are doing our diligence with regard to content design is to start with a content discovery workshop. It's a couple of hours of collaborative time where we try to get stakeholders that are important to the conversation in the room together to talk it out.
Usually, it’s the person who owns the project and then a couple of other people from their internal teams that have great opinions or who need to be heard. Mixing up people from various levels of the organization is also a great idea, so you can get a sales perspective and a marketing perspective and a C-level perspective, and a service-level perspective.
During the workshop, we walk them through a series of exercises to try to get at the nature of the content for the website. We talk about all sorts of things and note everything down in Figma.
Brand and story-focused questions might include, “What is the story that we're wanting to tell? What's your why, how, and what?” This way, we can hear things from their own mouths and home in on language that they're using when they talk about their brand.
Voice and Tone
We might address voice and tone as well, via card-sort exercises. One exercise I like to use has all these little cards and the client can move around to express, “We are this. We're not this. And we’re not sure if we’re this or not, but let’s talk about it.” Then we talk about it.
We also talk a lot about the audience. Questions there might include:
Who are your audiences?
Who are you talking about?
Who are they?
What are their goals?
What are their motivations?
What are their frustrations?
What are the sensitivities they have about the thing that you're selling or the thing that you are or the thing that you're doing?
What are the jobs to be done?
Let’s note that the last one's an important one. What is the goal of the website for this audience? What did they need to accomplish when they go to this website?
Here, we'll also often start the conversation about SEO. Sometimes our SEO person, Michael, will join us, but if not, I’ll ask basic questions about their goals (what the company might like to rank and be found for), their competitors, and what they already have in place for measuring search. It’s a longer, ongoing conversation and the discovery is just the beginning, however. Take a look at Michael’s SEO primer on the EA blog for more in-depth information about how we work with brands to ensure the right people find and engage with them.
Site goals and opportunities
Finally, we often will lay out their current website and walk through it and say, “Hey, what's working? What's not working? What are the opportunities? What can we accomplish if we do a really good job here?” And my favorite question is, what's the single most important thing that this website has to do?
Once those things are out in the open, we’ll go away and triangulate all that into information that we have used to inform and plan their web experience.
What is a content discovery workshop for?
To sum it all up, the content discovery workshop is all tuned to figuring out how should we present information on the site based on the triangulation of our client’s goals, audience, and insight from the brand story and strategy. But it’s not about defining answers – just asking the right questions. How should we structure the site, which is what comes next? How should the story of this brand flow through the site? How many clicks will an audience accept to get to what they want? How do they want to receive all that information? How does that need intersect creatively with our brand’s DNA, voice, tone, and story?
Next, we start creating the elements that will answer these questions.
Step 2: The Site Map and Outline
We’ll only touch on this briefly here. Not that it’s not important, but that it’s a whole article within itself.
Directly after the content discovery workshop, we will condense all the information and work out the structure of the website from a high level – what pages need to be on the site and what content needs to be thought about/created as a result. The output is a site map, and sometimes what we call a site outline: a skim-level view of what will exist not just at the highest level of the site, but roughly within the strategy of the content on each page. It’s a step that feels a little extra but is vital to ensure that every page has a place on the website, that content leads the way and works hand in hand with web design decisions, and that clients understand the general scope and size of the site we’re creating.
Step 3: Wireframes
After that, Wireframes begin. There is a lot of back and forth here. Part of content design is collaboration: writers work side by side with our UX team, with designers, with our technical lead inside the Figma files. We talk about all kinds of things. Maybe, hey, why don't we put bullets here instead of a big long paragraph…or I think that the user needs this to linked off onto another page. Or the researchers told me that the user is keen on this one piece of information, and we need to move that to the top of the page. That helps us collaboratively decide page by page by page by click by click, what is going to go where and what the best place and the best way to show that information is. So it's a lot of cross-team collaboration where we're all in Figma together.
By the way: the way that this was done pre-Figma is we would just huddle around a desk and get out a piece of paper out and draw stuff. Today’s digital collaboration is so much easier and so much more efficient, and we can get so much more done. Plus we are a decentralized team at Edgar Allen. So as I am doing this, I’m collaborating with people that are in Buenos Aires, that are in South Africa, that are in Serbia, that are all over the world. And we're doing it in real-time. And it's awesome. As our design lead, Chesley says, “Everybody in the pool!” So we're all in the pool.
Where does content design fit into the web design process?
Content design starts in one place: At the very beginning of a project. One of the mistakes that companies or teams make is not letting the copywriter or the content designer into the room early enough.
Audience discovery starts with branded messaging, so there are always things for a content designer who's working just a little bit down the stream to learn from that. And getting them involved at the very beginning is almost always our goal if we're doing that kind of project. However, every project we do at Edgar Allen doesn't start with a full brand refresh. Sometimes it starts with a client saying “We have a brand that somebody else did and we need to implement that or execute that on a website.” Great. We can do that. We'd still want the content designer to be involved in the first meetings to talk either to the agency that did the work or to understand a little bit that's behind the scenes, but we’re still going to start them early.
The other reason is when you're creating digital experiences, you're always attempting to look from the outside in. That's what you do if you're doing it right. You're trying not to shoegaze. You're typically not trying to build something that's for you. You're building it for someone else. To do that, you have to learn the very most you can about a group of folks, what they need, what they expect, what they want, what they're turned off by, how they think, what motivates them, and on and on - and it drives all of your decisions. So you want to start that as early as possible and continue to use that information throughout the process. If you aren't doing that, you're not creating a useful digital experience. You're guessing. And I hate guessing. I want to know, I want to ask the right questions. I want to get into the audience's head. I want to know what they're looking for. So if you're not doing that, you're not creating something useful. You’re creating a vanity project or a flat brochure
The industry talks about “content first,” but I just like the idea of “content always” a lot better. This means bringing the copywriter in now, whenever part of the process you're in.
Right now is a good time to get the content designer onboard and to start working.
Accel is a venture capital firm in San Francisco. It's one of the very first VC websites that we worked on.
Through our research, we talked to a bunch of their founders and found out from them that this site is mostly for them to visit after they've been contacted by somebody at Accel. So one of the things we wanted to do was show on the main screen here how robust and in the mix in the VC world Accel is. You have these bright colors and you have all this information and it's kind of scrolling and moving and going down the page. But one of the coolest things that this site does that is just for our audiences is if you search.
Go to the sidebar, and you can pull up a custom search page that has everything that you would need about. Here, I searched Webflow, and you have not only just information about Webflow or maybe articles that were written about them, but you have the people that funded that company. And you can click in there and you can see everything about them. And this was the most important thing for our audiences. We wanted to make this super easy and super personal and super intuitive. So we were. Imagine in this case, use case scenario that someone is a leader of a cool up-and-coming tech company and they got an email from Ben here. And they're like, Oh, who's this Ben guy? I know about Accel. Let's learn about him and see if he might be a good partner.
And so the result gives you all kinds of information about Ben and this incredibly robust page, including articles he's written and the things that he's funded and all the relationships that he's made. And so that is an example of content design leading and content leading the structure and flow of a website.
Another simpler example is Balentine. They are money managers for really wealthy people and families. Visually, they have lovely aspirational pictures and a brand about this wealth of perspective working for you. They also have a long legacy and a lot of experience. Well, we talked to them and their audiences and said, and we found out there are like four or five questions that the Balentine team has to answer all the time, over and over and over. Things that high net worth individuals are truly concerned about when they're looking for someone to manage their money. So we thought, “Why don't we just create a question and answer right there in the middle of the webpage, in the middle of the homepage?” And this is what you're looking at.
The way this is conceived, you get the question and then you can click in to get a little preview of the answer, to validate if this is info you truly need. But then there's an entire page dedicated to the answer. Some of these pages have videos, and some of them have little benefit statements. But the other great thing is this is a Webflow site. So this set of questions will change over time, based on the economy, how money is managed, and because of legal things. And Balentine can change these things and change out the landing pages that are attached to it. So this is another example of content design leading the structure of a site.
The third one I've got here is Kate's Club. And this is a great organization. They're a nonprofit that is dedicated to helping families and mostly children who have lost someone close to them. So they are a free-of-charge organization. You apply to be a member and you can go to their physical locations, mostly in Georgia. And now, because of some other work that we've done for them, they have an online community as well, so people all over the US can get resources and talk to people who have been through this, get help, and have a sense of community.
There's a lot of content design all over this page, how should we lay out the headlines? How should we talk about Kate’s Club and get people to understand what's the relationship between those things and the photos? What about numbers? What should we be showing? But one of the things that we helped improve was that their programs were organized in a convoluted way. It was hard to tell what information was for you if you were a parent or caregiver: what the high points were of any of these things or what the things that you might care about were. So we gave them these little call-outs throughout the site that summarize the points because we knew that our audiences are having, they're probably going through the worst time of their lives and they don't have a lot of time or mind space to read.
All people, but our research told us, especially grieving people looking for assistance just want to skim and know quickly, “What can I get out of this? Is this the right place for me?” and then quickly apply. So you'll see a lot of “get started,” and “apply” buttons down the page. And you'll also see these little candy-colored callouts that help users find the programs that might apply to them. They’re asking, “So I'm in Atlanta, what can I get from the Atlanta program?” Well, there's the park bench program and you can do holiday hugs and lots more. So it's just a really easy, skimmable, and also ultimately very friendly way to consume information, which we knew these audiences needed.
For websites, content isn’t a nice to have but a must-have for a site to be more than empty digital shelves. And content design ensures that what’s on your digital shelves isn’t just a guess; that it’s organized, easily accessible, and meets your user’s needs.
The bottom line is that websites are built to solve problems for users. And if you don’t make the solutions easy for a person to find what they’re looking for, they won’t stay long and do what you want them to do — instead, they will leave. So ensure your users get a simple user experience and that your site is useful by focusing on content design throughout the website design process.
Interested in getting support using content design to create better websites? We can help with that.