Successful web projects begin with content

If I had a nickel for every time someone jumps to design and layout in a web project meeting, I’d have about $5 (that’s a lot of nickels).

As Mike Monteiro puts it in his (excellent) book You’re My Favorite Client:

No one comes to a site because of the design. They come for the content or the service, like booking air travel. The design should encourage them to stay, offering a wonderfully easy-to-understand and even delightful way to interact with that content or service. Bad design can certainly bury good content, but you can’t design a “premium experience” and pour crap content into it with any expectation of success.

I think this is a little scary for people who design and make websites, because it demotes the importance of how a site looks.

Consider this post from SimpleBits:

This is my favorite website. I visit it almost every day. It’s not responsive. It’s not optimized for iPhone. It looks blurry on a Retina display. It doesn’t use the latest HTML5/CSS3 framework. It doesn’t have a thoughtful vertical rhythm. The fonts are nothing special. It is neither skeumorphic nor flat. It doesn’t have its own favicon. It doesn’t have a native app or Twitter or Instagram. It doesn’t use AJAX or SCRUM or node.js or Sinatra. It doesn’t have an API or an RSS feed or VC funding. It hasn’t been featured on a prominent tech blog or won an award.

It tells me the soups of the day.

Freely distributed information that’s relevant to the person reading it. That’s web design.

I’ve gotten incredibly invested in projects before and become so enamored with how I implemented a certain design pattern or how clever a design element was, only to see it met with a tepid response from users. This is typically what happen when you put the cart before the horse. The design could be incredible but if it’s not useful to the user, who cares? The user doesn’t look at your website the same way the person who made it does.

The user is looking for helpful content or a helpful service. They’re not there to look at how it was implemented or how it looks. The only people who do that are other designers and developers.

Most successful web projects start with great content. Design serves to highlight the content. So if all this is true, why do so many meetings quickly move into design?

This is something Monteiro also touches on repeatedly in his books, but we — people who design and create websites — all share some guilt for allowing this to happen. The people who move the conversation towards design before a) purpose of the site is settled and b) engaging content is developed simply don’t know that they’re trying to derail the process.

It’s our job to remind them what is important. It’s our job to prioritize content over design. Ideally, a great content strategist can work with the client and help tease out what is most important to be shown and developers can focus on building a great technical foundation.

So everyone who is reading this, go forth into your next meeting and remind people of the solid foundation that web projects should be built on: a purpose, something useful to the user, and great content to support it. Once those things are decided, the design will follow.

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What do you think?