2023 Award Winner

What is content design?

A content always mindset | Edgar Allan

Content Design is about making websites more useful by ensuring that when we make them, we’re creating them for the right people to be able to do the right things, using research to back up our decisions, and making the best use of the varied insight and talents of the teams who build them.

If, in reading that, you’re thinking, “But isn’t that how it’s always been done?” you have either never built a website or have never tried to use one that entirely failed to give you what you needed.

Despite our best intentions, most websites are created in silos. Brand strategists hand down big ideas to writers and designers for their interpretation. Writers write. UX folks create structure. Designers design. And most of the time, these things go on fairly individually, with everyone in their own lane thinking separately about what the experience should be, often without giving enough thought to who it needs. to work for, and how that should best happen.

Brand work might (should) have accomplished some audience research, but not always in the context of solving specific problems for customers on the web. UX and writers might collaborate, but usually it’s on the strategy level — figuring out where words might go, but not deciding how to choose or place them so they’ll be most useful. Design might decide how a page flows based off UX’s wireframe, but they might have put lorem in a box and handed over a character count to the writer to add the meat of the story.

Content Design, the way it’s described in Sarah Richards’ seminal work on the subject, and in how we approach it at Edgar Allan, closes the gaps between brand and execution, between visual storytelling and the verbal story being told, and between what users need from us and how we give it to them.

Because of all this, Content Design is both a title and a process change. Here’s some thoughts about how we do Content Design at Edgar Allan:

Acknowledge that content creation is design

A while back, I wrote about how we decided to start calling our Copywriters and Content Strategists Content Designers. It wasn’t an arbitrary title swap, but it was an expression of intent. Be the change and all that. We wanted to make it clear, to ourselves and anyone who works with us, that we believe that on the web, content is inseparable from design. We also wanted to express that our writers don’t just write words, they, in collaboration with our designers and UX folks, design experiences.

A website is mostly made of three things: design, interactions, and words. When they’re created together, in one collaborative swing, with the needs and goals of the audience they’re meant for in mind, we create gloriously useful web. When they’re not, we more often than not build things that make someone happy (Us? The client?),but don’t accomplish much for real users.

And I don’t know about anyone else, but our clients want to accomplish something meaningful with their websites. 

Get writers, UX, and design together sooner

Sometimes, content is seen as an afterthought; the last box to check before going live. Sometimes a client sees it that way. (“Just build me something and we’ll fill in the blanks.”) And sometimes, we in the industry see it that way. In a project, high-level brand and messaging strategy arrive first to set the stage, then UX swoops in (because we have to build the skeleton before we hang clothes on it), then design pretties things up, and then content fills in some boxes with words. It’s at best short-sighted and at worst ludicrous that we think we can create anything truly useful this way.

Making a website isn’t a relay race, it’s an all-hands team sport where the perspective of the story person, the visual person, the map-maker and even the big-idea person is valuable all the way through. That doesn’t mean we expect UX people to write copy (though I’m always for it, TBH), or that words-focused people have to be master illustrators. What it does mean, is that where we might have slotted people into their “part” of the process later on, we’re now asking content designers and UX folks to get together, work together, and stay together from the beginning of the project through to the end.

No more “waiting until the wireframes are done” to write headlines. No more “Can you just make this two words shorter?” right before launch. We talk through it all together from the start, with the user’s needs, goals, and the jobs they have to accomplish via the site constantly in view.  

Do the research

Brand strategy has always included research into audience, competition, the marketplace, values, and trends and forces that might affect how a product or business is perceived. But brand research is focused on painting in broad strokes, and doesn’t always answer questions like, “When audience A comes to our site to do (some specific thing), what’s the best way to help them do it?” A narrower discovery process is needed to make the right choices.

So, we pair brand strategy sprints with content discovery sessions. During a brand sprint, we look high, toward the compelling differentiator of a product, its personality, and the way it connects with people. During content discovery, we look lower, toward the specific things we’ll do to help audiences get what they need. We’ll invite subject matter experts, gather writers, designers, and UX, and together look closely at the problems our audiences must solve via our website. What are the jobs they’re there to do? How to they talk about our product? (It’s often different than how we talk about it ourselves.) What can we create that will make everything clear to them? We also do desk research to verify what we’re hearing. And only then, do we move on to making the experience.

Make brand more actionable

Content discovery also has this amazing ability to help us pull the big ideas and truths of brand strategy all the way through to the place people interact with the brand.

We start all content discovery with brand strategy findings. It’s the web team's first introduction to the audiences, to the product’s uniqueness, and to the big, high-level goals the client wants to achieve. Then we don’t let go of the thread, constantly looking back to brand as a benchmark and justifying our decisions against it. Does this sound right, based on who we say we are? If our brand is “The most Zen widget you’ll ever buy,” does it make sense to have a crazy, metal opening video on the home page?” And, “If we think, even given the brand, a crazy metal video is what our audiences really need… what do we need to rethink so we’re all singing the same song?”

Embrace the awesome potential of no code

Finally, nothing about the ultra-collaborative nature of Content Design, or the ease with which a non-technical person can create huge change on a very technical thing like a website would be possible without the rise of no code web design and development.

We’ve talked a lot about our “everyone in the pool” approach to design, how we design in the browser so we can prototype and show “real stuff" faster. The no code tools that allow us to prototype easily for clients also allow all the disciplines to put their two cents into comps, prototypes, even live sites easily, all together, at the same time. The potential is huge, and we’ve just scratched the surface. Read more about our thoughts on how the second wave of no code is for authors.  


So, what do you think about Content Design? What did we miss? We want to know. Hit me up at kendra@edgarallan.com.

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