The Content Corner: Good UX Needs Good Content

Nov 23, 2015

As DigitalGov focuses on user experience this month it is good to remember one harsh truth: You cannot have a good user experience with bad content. It is important to keep a “content first” strategy in place during any website redesign or new site development. It is so easy for the various disciplines involved in designing a site to lose sight of the content and of each other.

Graphic illustration of a machine that processes pieces of content and produces a web page.

I’ve been there, and I am sure most of us have. A new, exciting redesign of your site is getting started and the very first thing being discussed is how it’s going to look. Full disclosure: last week, I referred to a major system redesign I was involved with, and I am already building wireframes. Sorry, dear readers, but I am not perfect either. Content considerations and the users’ needs are driving the development behind those wireframes, but I fear that content is still being slighted.

Without Content There is Nothing

I’m staring at my paper wireframes as I type this and making a pained expression as I look at the blocks of completely fake content within each of my design elements. I didn’t even use Lorem Ipsum or Bacon Ipsum (a personal favorite), I just used Blokk which creates content that looks like a bad CIA redaction document. Why would I do such a thing? Why did we ever start using Lorem Ipsum in the first place?

I started in this profession as a designer first and then became more and more involved with content creation as time progressed. As a designer, when presenting my concepts and mockups to a group of stakeholders, I wanted them to look at the design, the cool colors or slick interface. So why would each of these sessions devolve into nitpicking the real content I borrowed from the existing site? Back then it was frustrating; today we need to understand that a complete focus on the content is actually the conversation you desperately want to be having with stakeholders or subject matter experts (SMEs).

However, again with a focus on the design and the content a distraction, it was replaced with dummy text and designers drew upon an old printing tradition of using Lorem Ipsum_._ How could stakeholders be distracted by nonsensical Latin? They can fully see the designs in all their glory. Except of course certain constituents were distracted by the Latin (or even Latin with various types of meat interspersed). Which answers the earlier question of why I started using Blokk. Has anyone else suddenly realized that they have incrementally divorced content so far from the design process that it has been turned into black blobs? I feel and share your pain.

The Price of Discounting Your Content

I am not going to name names, but I was recently allowed to review a site redesign and discuss various needs and concerns about content. As this discussion continued the response about where and how I could present pieces of content was “Um, no, we’re not sure the site can do that.” I was discussing pretty standard and existing content, not new or revolutionary ideas. If you ever find yourself at any stage of a design project trying to figure out ways to make your content fit or work within the designs, then that should serve as an alarm. You have most likely fallen prey to the common errors I shared above. Content became an inconvenience or a distraction in the heat of design and programming concerns.

One other detrimental effect of losing sight of your content and even using filler such as Lorem Ipsum is that you aren’t getting a true sense of the content and therefore also aren’t giving the designer a chance to properly plan for reality. Another true confession: Many times when I have used any type of filler content, the filler always somehow magically fits into any design element almost perfectly. How convenient! And once real content was introduced it suddenly didn’t fit so nicely anymore and all my wonderful boxes were broken. How can these issues be corrected? Use a little something called proto content.

Proto Content

I’m not sure if he invented the concept, but I know Liam King is a big proponent of proto content and its use in site design. King wonderfully describes the use of Lorem Ipsum as akin to an inert gas that fills any space, but is meaningless. It does nothing to help a designer or anyone involved learn more about the relationship between the content, the user’s needs, and the site design. This relationship is the key to any website project at any stage. If the interaction of these three elements is off, then your new site is likely to provide a sub-standard user experience (another harsh truth).

The image below helps to demonstrate both the dangers of filler content and a useful best practice I will definitely be sure to follow in the future. The main issue illustrated is how the filler content does fill the space as perfectly as the designer needs it to. The next Upcoming Events box has realistic content and not only provides a true example of how this design element will commonly appear on the site, but also helps the designer gain a better understanding of how it serves the user. The last box is very important because it represents a worst-case content scenario. In my experience, always expect there to be more information and content than you planned on. This is great example to help plan for those overly long titles.

Example of the effect of fake content and optimal real and worst case content (Source: Gather Content)

Be sure that real content (even if it’s not final content, just as close to reality as possible) is at the center of any UX consideration such as a redesign. One good way to facilitate this is to have all the members of the design team working closely together: the content expert, the UX designer, and the programmers. This close and frequent interaction helps to organically generate questions and conversation among the team members to give everyone a better understanding of the role content plays in the site and more important, how the user interacts with the content.

You’ve just finished reading the latest article from our Monday column, The Content Corner. This column focuses on helping solve the main content issues facing federal digital professionals, including producing enough content and making that content engaging.