Any good content design process starts with discovery — the period where you do some workshopping and researching to get to know a business and its site goals, plus its customers and their site needs. And a big part of that discovery includes doing an inventory or audit of all the content that’s already there to see what you’re working with, and to get an idea of what might be performing particularly well.
And that’s where things can start to get…complicated.
From a purely content-driven standpoint, you might be able to look at a spreadsheet full of URLs and notes about each page across the site and make some judgment calls about what needs to stay, what needs to go, and what maybe just needs a little rearranging. But when it comes to our work, you have to understand that content isn’t just about putting information on a page. It’s about content in context. Figuring out what information meets a user need when and how they need it.
That’s why content design is important. It’s not about just organizing the information you want to push; it’s about triangulating its use — figuring out what would best serve user needs at any point across the whole experience.
For us, the best way we’ve found to start designing a site from this frame of mind is to shove the content audit into the backseat, as it were, and start from zero (at least initially).
In Defense of Wiping the Slate Clean
The idea of starting from nothing when writing a website can sound daunting — especially for copywriters who might come from a world where they’re used to being at the end of a long chain of already-made decisions, filling in “boxes” on a page. Or to designers who might be used to a “content-first” approach where they’re handed a word doc with copy to create structure around. But we’ve found that content design actually gives us a bit of freedom to feel like we can start fresh-ish, beginning with a blank page and then figuring out what really needs to be there and how, rather than just rejiggering what was already there.
The “let’s forget about the audit for now” mindset focuses us on the main goal of content design — centering content around user needs; not around existing content.
If we look with fresh eyes, we’re more apt to question every decision around what elements need to live where, rather than defaulting to assumptions because of where and how things already are. As Sarah Winters, known for coining the term “content design,” writes in her book on the subject: “You don’t need to publish everything. What you don’t publish is as important as what you do publish.” (And more often than not we see sites that tend to have too much content rather than too little.)
Go Ahead, Bust that Mold Wide Open
Another thing that starting with a blank slate has let us do is be more creative with how we approach each site. When starting with what information you have and maybe some competitor analysis in the front of your mind, it’s all too easy to fall into the same typical design formats over and over again: hero, headline here, subhead here, intro text here, features 3-up here, etc. etc. It’s the same trap we mentioned earlier of defaulting to assumptions about the need for certain content in certain places since it’s a typical practice or it exists there already.
Instead, we’re now coming from a place of imagining what should be and what could be, led by audience research and SME insight. And it sure does make the design process a lot more exciting. Of course, we still look at competitor sites as part of the process (if not to just see what the status quo is), but we’re also not afraid to look far and wide for inspiration, going outside the client’s industry as a matter of course to see what other sites might be doing differently that might make sense for our project. A question we like to ask: What other brands appeal to these same audiences, and what other industries are saddled with overcoming similar hurdles like competing on price or products with too-complex information?
So, About that Content Audit
Don’t throw it out just yet. For us anyway, it still serves a purpose. First, just doing it is a great way to get a lay of the land. Most sites aren’t entirely junk; there’s nuggets of gold to be mined in even the most junk-drawer type of web experiences. And secondly, after you’ve gone wide, you’ll need to narrow in and complete the whole content picture. You’ll likely find a lot of answers buried in that older text – info you’ll now know much better what to do with.
Also, someone’s gotta clock those 301 redirects, and our developers would murder us if nobody kept track of things we’re moving. So, there’s that.
So, maybe you don’t need that extra headline? Maybe that copy would be better conveyed with an image? And maybe what used to be on the page isn’t at all what needs to be?
The first two rules of content design (after audience focus is everything) are: assume nothing and question everything. So, blank that slate. Clear your mind. The audit will be there waiting when you’re done.