Embrace content strategy: throw out your design process

The way most web teams are structured makes it impossible to practice content strategy. Agency or in-house, big or small, it doesn’t matter. If your lack of content strategy is hurting the user experience, it’s time to throw out your design process and start over. You have nothing to lose but your bureaucracy.

The web isn’t print, advertising, or software.

You got the memo years ago: the web isn’t print, advertising, or software. So why are so many web teams set up like it’s 1999? Here are three workflows that are alive and well (in London, at least).

First, the print design model, based on annual reports and brochures. Someone designs something, someone writes something, there are a few rounds of feedback and corrections. The client “signs off”, it goes to print, and it’s done. This process works for an annual report which nobody’s ever going to read (it’s about the shiny paper, right?) but only a mad person would use it for web design. You’d think.

Then there’s the advertising model. A man whose initials are on the front door comes up with a catchy strapline that would make a great 30 second TV commercial. Then it’s, “let’s make this a website!”, as they fly in a project manager
to draw a linear Gantt chart with “copy” slotted in at the end. It’s entirely campaign focused. Nobody expects people to visit this “website” after launch day.

Third, the software “waterfall” method. The platonic form of the website’s features is passed down on stone tablets by monks who just know what’s best. (Agile won’t solve your content strategy problems, of course, but the waterfall has to go.)

These models are completely inappropriate for web or user experience design. It’s impossible to practice content strategy in this context.

Start with publishing.

Throw these processes out. Start with publishing, and then add what you need to make the project work. Research, user-centered design, agile: whatever it takes.

Tiffani Jones wrote about this topic in “Toward a Content-Driven Design Process”:

One of the biggest and best side effects of content strategy’s activism is that it’s encouraging agencies to reorder their design process. It’s no longer: discovery, information architecture, design, templates and development.

Instead, we’re doing: content strategy, information architecture, web writing, content production, design, templates and development—or some version of this.

The important thing is, we’re starting to think about content, early on.

It’s worth celebrating the early signs of content strategy taking root within web design teams. But a common question from web people learning about content strategy is, “how can I make clients pay for this?” The honest answer involves throwing out your design process, hiring more content people, repositioning your offering as strategic rather than tactical, rethinking your billing model, challenging your clients rather than offering them “solutions”, and generally ruffling a lot of feathers.

Embracing content strategy is about the web industry growing up. We’ve been happily distracting ourselves from the scary, messy reality of web strategy, governance, and content by focusing on tactics, features, and techniques. If we want to fix the broken user experiences that result, we need to make some difficult changes. If you’re up for that, you’ll prosper. “She’ll be right,” as they say in Oz. Throwing out your design process is just the first step.