Cleve Gibbon

content management, content modelling, digital ecosystems, technology evangelist.

Content First

big-guySay you’ve been asked to buy a suit for someone you’ve never met. What do you do first?

  1. Buy the suit.
  2. Meet & Measure them.

For design-led projects, we’re buying that suit first. By damn, one way or another that content will well fit into that design and look good! Of course I’m exaggerating a little here. But if have been in a project where the content is delivered at the end and simply doesn’t fit, you never want to go there again.

Now call me odd, but wouldn’t life be that little bit easier if we sized up the content first and then designed the site to fit it. Measure, then fit. I dream of projects where we all work together to determine what information a site needs upfront, organise it, think of ways to be navigate it and then and only then do we create the designs to satisfy those requirements. What typically happens is something that lies between these to extremes depending on when I get involved.

What is Content First

Content First is a way of thinking. It’s core to you and manifests in the way you approach content-oriented projects. Content first gives you sight beyond sight. It’s not just the aesthetics. It’s about joined up site development that delivers clear and simple messages to its intend audience.

Although I’m a firm believer in Content First, I do appreciate the importance of web design. It’s got to look good and provide great user experience. However, for me, web design is one of many representations of content. Albeit an important one, but only one. There are many other channels, such as email, print, mobile devices, electronic documents, and so on. The aim is to separate and maintain a clear division between content and its target representations. To this end, its is essential to think and act in a Content First manner, something design folks have called Content Driven Design in the past.

The Challenge

There are number of challenges that make it harder to work in a Content First manner. These are not show stoppers. You just need to be aware of the constraints and wiggle a little to give yourself some room to manoeuvre.

Design is an iterative and horizontal endeavour. It’s done when its done. Typically the business engage with a creative agency. The creative agency produces some designs. When the designs are complete, the downstream activities start. The following are things that tend to happen in these scenarios:

  • The Lorem Ipsum Time Bomb – Real copy is never added to the design. Real copy is added once the system has been built. The real copy does not fit the designs.
  • Sample Navigation – Assumptions around the size, amount, fragmentation, relationship and kinds of content made are design time are wrong. Navigation works in part but not as first intended.
  • Simple Design, Complex Delivery – Some creative ideas are fantastic but are not feasible for the target delivery channel. Worst case is that these ideas are core to the design, resulting in a doomed implementation.

Some ‘Content First’ Recommendations

  • If you are being asked to manage somebody else’s content, take the necessary steps to find what that content is. Do some content modelling.
  • Do not wait for the creative agencies to complete their designs. Start building out the site and let the authors and your customers touch the system early. It will influence the designs at a time when changes are not as costly to apply.
  • Get the authors writing content as soon as possible. Whatever it takes, create a means for them to enter content and facilitate the discussions around it before the designs have been completed.
  • Never sign off on designs that have never been road tested with actual content. Don’t buy the suit unless you’ve tried it on!
  • The content folks and creative team need to work much more closely together. Have many, many joint reviews. Staged handovers. Transparent working.
  • Decide early on where the priorities lie. Is it a killer site launch? Site aesthetics are top of the agenda? Is the site a marketing vehicle? Or a combination of these?

At Cognifide, we have been thinking more and more about Content First and adapting our delivery to be more align to Content Driven Development, something I’ll leave for a later post. But as promised, the next post in the content modelling series will be all about the content model.

Category: content strategy

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About Cleve Gibbon



I'm Cleve Gibbon, CTO at Cognifide where we are passionate about digital content.

My sort of up-to-date cv tells you my past, linked in shows you my professional network and on twitter you can find out what I'm currently doing.

This year I plan attend a number of events. Hopefully I'll see you there. I'm easy to find as I'm always laughing. Find out more about me and get in touch!